Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Popcorn Kernels: Vote For Pedro

It's my only friend, the end! After these three mini-reviews of his more obscure 90's work, we will finally be finished with our long-running retrospective on the filmography of Pedro Almodóvar! (Full disclosure, two of these reviews were written about a year and a half ago. It took... a while to finally motivate myself to watch Kika, perhaps the only movie of his that literally nobody has a good word to say about.)

High Heels

Year: 1991
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Miguel Bosé
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A news anchor's estranged actress mother returns after 10 years, and they both become embroiled in a murder investigation when her husband - her mother's ex - winds up dead.

There's melodrama and then there's Almodóvar melodrama. And then there's High Heels. An operatically tragic affair, every other scene features or or both of the lead actresses' eyes brimming with tears (the first being Marisa Paredes, anchor of The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother, returning to his ensemble for the first time after Dark Habits; the second being Victoria Abril, his rebound muse after Carmen Maura's departure, who was fresh off his previous effort Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). The labyrinthine plot twists and turns at every opportunity, full of unexpected reveals and simpering heartache.

OK not every reveal is unexpected, one of them being rendered entirely predictable by the presence of a hilariously fake beard, but I'm pretty sure we're supposed to notice that.

But I digress (as you're probably aware if you've read more than one of my reviews). Coming on the (pun absolutely intended) heels of a decade of work dominated primarily by comedies, High Heels was the beginning of Almodóvar's transformation from Madrid punk wild child to respected international filmmaker. it's not an entirely smooth transition. This is the first of two films co-produced with a French studio whose process wouldn't end up gelling with him, and it's marked by a handful of flaws.

To be fair, these flaws do stem entirely from Almodóvar himself: the first a tendency to linger far too long on non-plot progressing musical numbers. This would work well in his future works (and in fact did so in Law of Desire four years earlier), but the plot is so bare bones that it can't withstand the diversion. There is still an inordinate amount of style in the way High Heels is shot (especially its red-heavy color palette), but it is not so inundated with pure cinema craft that it can take a break to rejoice in the pure act of creation in the way that the much more confident Volver can.

The second, less invasive, flaw is the cast, which sees Almodóvar still reeling from the loss of Carmen Maura. And now her male counterpart Antonio Banderas has also left the scene (he dropped out of High Heels for his role in 1992's The Mambo Kings). The director just doesn't seem to know what to make of his leads (minus the reliably excellent Marisa Paredes), and though Miguel Bosé and especially Victoria Abril give very fine performances, they lack that ineffable spark that defines most of Almodóvar's leads, even one-time players like Bad Education's Gael García Bernal.

But that said, High Heels is still capable of great heights. The comic bit with a sign language interpreter is excellent, and a joyous moment of dance in a women's prison numbers among the director's most delightful - if inexplicable - scenes. High Heels is a beautiful melodrama with a gripping plot and a unique sensibility, even if it's occasionally a bit lethargic. How anyone could complain about that I do not know, though I understand why this is one of the less revered works in the director's filmography.

Rating: 6/10

Kika


Year: 1993
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Peter Coyote, Verónica Forqué, Victoria Abril
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

An upbeat cosmetologist must weather affairs, a voyeur, a serial killer, a rapist, and an evil television announcer in a very fateful week.

Kika was in very many ways a transitional film for Almodóvar. It was the first time he would ever work with an American actor - Peter Coyote - and it was also the last. The ties to his regular ensemble of actors are extremely loose - of the notable people who worked with him multiple times, it's pretty much only Rossy De Palma, who does get her first truly meaty role with him here - and this was the last time he would make a film featuring temp muse Victoria Abril.

Abril, who had a small uncredited role in Law of Desire before leading Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels and taking a sizable supporting role in Kika, never managed to produce truly extraordinary work with the man, who was in his most artistically uncertain period following the departure of Carmen Maura from his stable of reliable performers. She's a totally capable and extremely game actress, I don't mean to blame her. But she wasn't what he needed at the time, and it's telling that his very next film The Flower of My Secret would lean heavily on the miraculous Marisa Paredes and the subsequent Live Flesh would spark his relationship with Penélope Cruz and finally add another huge star to his firmament.

While I absolutely wouldn't say Kika was his worst film (for my money, some of his rougher early works just don't quite find their way), it's certainly the nadir of the pretty much uninterrupted string of cinematic triumphs that began with 1987's Law of Desire. Its narrative messiness is a little closer to the shapeless blob of Matador than his more artistically esoteric later works, positioning Peter Coyote as co-lead provides a huge emotional black hole (he just doesn't seem to care about anything going on here), and the film is tinged with a palpable bitterness that translated to a direly low box office pull everywhere but France (take from that what you will).

In spite of that, however, Kika does have its moments of brilliance. Kika's apartment, the location where about 60% of the film takes place, is a perfectly Almodóvarian haven of bright colors that is perfectly complemented by sassy, eye-searing Jean Paul Gaultier costumes. Victoria Abril's character (a TV shock jock who calls herself "Scarface") is f**king bizarre, but her costumes are a stroke of twisted genius - she is frequently dressed in a full body catsuit with a camera affixed to a helmet, and two cutouts for her breasts which also act as lamps. It's deeply insane, in the best Almodóvar fashion.

Speaking of... His kinkiness and demented comedy reach their most controversial peak in Kika during a scene that is hard to parse out in 2019. I'll be frank about it: It positions a rape sequence as a busy farce. I think it's pretty clear he's making a statement about how women are treated in European society at the time (a later line about "Women are being raped every day, today it happened to be me" cements this idea for me), but a viewer's mileage with this will absolutely vary. To be clear, the rape absolutely isn't a joke, it's the women's calm, almost bored and quotidian reactions to it. That said, it's an extremely tightly wound comic scene that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film, perhaps unfortunately.

Anyway... Remember what I said about Kika being kind of a bitter, nasty film? It's definitely an outlier in the Almodóvar canon, because even though it aesthetically fits in with the rest of his works, there's a fatigue here that isn't present even in his most recent works, created as a sexagenarian. I wouldn't recommend it to any first-timer approaching his work. In fact, I'm glad I saved it for last. I think the more context you have for his career, the more you'll appreciate it. Otherwise, focusing on the ones you've heard of instead is probably the best course of action.

Rating: 6/10

Live Flesh


Year: 1997
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Liberto Rabal, Francesca Neri, Javier Bardem
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An ex-con attempts to insert himself into the relationship of two of his victims.

Live Flesh is maybe the most straightforward melodrama Pedro Almodóvar has ever made. I guess that's not saying much, considering that it features three time jumps spanning 26 years, a complicated web of revenge sex, and literally every character points a gun at at least one other character. But it's at least linear, with one event directly informing the next, and that's a luxury you shouldn't thumb your nose at.

Because it's so linear, it's also a teensy bit predictable, but that's the only patch on what's otherwise a completely stunning, typically twisted tale of lust, blood, and betrayal. Live Flesh's tantalizing storyline is brought to lurid life by Almodóvar's inimitable style, which had finally kicked into high gear after a brief mid-90's decline (he had to build up speed before making All About My Mother, I suppose). Come to think of it, in a lot of ways Live Flesh feels like the director is pressing the reset button.

While he is exercising his visual prowess with renewed vigor (he captures the streets of Madrid with a  delightful symmetry, finding unique shapes through which to tell his story - whether they be the harsh rectangle of a city bus, the inviting circle of a blessing wreath of flowers, or the repeating star motif), he has also chosen a cast of conspicuously unfamiliar faces. Every Almodóvar film pulls from his established ensemble of actors for at least two or three roles (usually more), but the only member of Live Flesh's cast he had ever worked with before was Javier Bardem, who held a small role in High Heels so negligible you wouldn't have noticed him if he wasn't now incredibly famous.

Of course, that doesn't mean he wouldn't work with these people again (hell, this is the film where he found Penélope Cruz, his second greatest muse), but for all intents and purposes this cast gave him an entirely new sandbox to work in, as his career progressed forward into its more Oscar-worthy stretch. None of them reach the peak of what an Almodóvar ensemble can accomplish, but they're all nevertheless game for the task.

Really, the most striking thing about Live Flesh is how overtly political it is. Although I certainly don't have a thorough enough grounding in Spanish politics to have all the context I need, the film is very clearly an indictment of the regime of the dictatorial King Franco, as well as a depiction of the insidious way it poisoned the lives of those who lived under it. It's also an exuberant celebration for the freedom of modern Spain, so passionate that anyone who doesn't have a scrap of geopolitical understanding could still feel its warmth.

A captivating story with political fervor is exactly what I want from a film, so I greatly enjoyed Live Flesh. It suffers a little from its more anonymous cast, but I wouldn't even have noticed if I wasn't as terrifyingly deep into the man's filmography as I surely am. It's a gorgeous, terrific film that is also one of his more easily accessible works, so I recommend it to veterans and newcomers alike.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1908

Monday, May 20, 2019

Reviewing Jane: I Am Half Agony, Half Hope

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2004
Director: Beeban Kidron
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may remember, the original Bridget Jones's Diary was ostensibly based on Pride and Prejudice, a connection I found dubious considering that naming a character Darcy doesn't mean you've read Jane Austen. But three years later came Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which was even more ostensibly based on Austen's final novel Persuasion. Time to repeat the refrain. Having a couple get back together after a period of time doesn't. mean. you've. read. Jane! Freaking! Austen!

But people aren't exactly out here adapting Persuasion left and right, so we take what we get with this one.

So the film opens on Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) happily in love with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), but because she is an insecure mess who's incapable of holding a cogent thought in her head for more than two seconds without going ballistic or falling into a mud puddle, of course this goes terribly wrong. It would appear that Mark is having an affair with his secretary Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett), and her anger is fueled by the fact that she expected a proposal that never happened (six weeks into this relationship, mind you) so she dumps him and throws herself into work, a travel show that brings her into close context with her misogynistic ex-boss/ex-lover Daniel (Hugh Grant).

A love triangle almost ensues.

Roll credits!

Is it clear I didn't like this movie? If not, allow me to highlight my point further. A lot of the problems inherent to the original Bridget Jones are alive and well here, to the point that the rigorously anti-funny opening scene is repeated beat by exhausting beat. Come to think of it, the clumsy third act climactic fight between Grant and Firth is also repeated in full.

And do we get another scoop of terrible gay jokes dumped on top of the script? You betcha! And this time we're taking down history's iconic artist Michelangelo by calling him a "poof," because it's fun when you slur titanic cultural figures and reduce them to their sexuality, something which would have been highly dangerous to openly exhibit at the time yaaaaaaay! Oh, and how could we not be racist to huge swaths of the Asian population and use an entire foreign country and its people as a prop to further along a white woman's romantic journey?

Oh and you know we're not going to be able to escape the gags about the beautiful Zellweger being a fat pig who deserves to be mocked by everyone in her life and the public at large! For a movie squarely intended to land in the "chick flick" category, Bridget Jones sure just hates women. It's exhausting!

Good thing Colin Firth has almost exclusively played gay from this point on, because this just isn't working for him.

The sad thing is, this is actually a major improvement over the first film all things considered. Director Beeban Kidron (who also made the terrific To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar) actually knows how to shoot a movie, and the rich fantasy life that Bridget leads actually is incorporated into the visual schema in ways the original movie only sporadically attempted to. Her thoughts take the form of text and images inlaid onto the screen or transposed onto signs and buildings in real life, and it creates a lush bedrock of imagery upon which this crap sandwich is plated.

Also a plus, Hugh Grant is barely in this movie. I have nothing against the man himself, but his character is such a toxic despicable presence that his reduced screentime also slashes the proportion of this movie's most severely hateful and outdated humor.

This absolutely isn't a movie I'd recommend. To anyone. But if somehow you have a stomach of steel and enjoyed the original film, this one will give you more of the same, but with a little more focus and intentionality, and I guess that might be a good thing.

TL;DR: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is a massive improvement on the original, but that one was terrible so that makes this one only OK.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 722
Reviews In This Series
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Tears For Fears: Don't Cry Because It's Over

Year: 2019
Director: Michael Chaves
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So it's all come to this. My marathon of Llorona movies started at the literal inception of Mexican horror in 1933 and wound its way through the decades, past luchadors and cabin-in-the-woods slashers and bad modernizations and even animation to find its way to this very moment. I never expected the 2019 Conjuring-verse production of The Curse of La Llorona to be very good, I was just using it as an excuse to explore a cobwebby corner of horror I was interested in and knew almost nothing about. 

It's a good thing too, because otherwise ending here would be a huge letdown.

So here we are. It's 1973, and child protective services worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) encounters a case where a woman named Patricia (Patricia Velasquez) has locked her children in a closet. When she removes the children from her care, they are found drowned in the river the very next night. It turns out she locked them in said closet to protect them from La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez), an ancient Mexican folk legend who turns out to be very very real, and she's dressed like Cady Heron's ex-wife costume from Mean Girls.

Anna's own kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) begin to be tormented by the spirit, and she must seek the help of Rafael (Raymond Cruz) a lapsed priest turned curandero, to save them before it's too late.

Though Lord knows why she wants to keep these bland ass children around, especially when they don't know better than to NOT follow La Llorona's trail of creepy evil breadcrumbs right the hell up to the swimming pool.

Let's make one thing clear. For as many virtues as this movie has (and frankly, there's not many), it utterly, completely fails to make any sense of the extremely simple Llorona legend. By forcing her into the framework and formulaic scares of a Conjuring style movie, they obliterate any personality she has as they ruthlessly continue to pile rule after rule upon her that they're clearly making up as they go along. 

For one thing, she's not an entity that actively seeks out victims and marks them with her very very hot burny hands (my absolute favorite of these idiotic developments). She's not weak against the trees that were next to her when she drowned her children (just like I'm not allergic to the tiles in the bathroom, the place where I have committed my greatest sins). She's not a demon who needs to be exorcised by someone who cherry-picks cool looking elements of Mexican brujeria but is still just totally a Catholic exorcist in function if not in name. She's a ghost who lives down by the river and drowns your kids. It's not hard! It might not be super narratively satisfying, but let's just do that story once, for the love of God!

I may have finally snapped, it turns out.

The Curse of La Llorona doesn't leave quite as bad a taste in the mouth as the previous franchise entry The Nun, but where that movie was powerfully stupid, this one is more just generic and bland. I know I'm not the most excellent barometer for this kind of thing considering how many of these I watch, but I was scared by this movie not one single time. James Wan may have perfected the formula for the perfect jump scare in the Conjuring movies, but his army of acolytes that make these spinoff ones are patchy at best. While Wan can pump his formula full of atmosphere and dread, here you can practically hear the director counting the beats offscreen. "One, two, three, and... spooky lady!"

The lack of real scares makes it even harder to buy the already weak premise of this movie. Ghost movies tend to have problems with the "rules" of how everything works, but this one is almost deliriously inconsistent with how corporeal La Llorona is. She seems to be deterred by a locked door in one scene, when mere moments before she floated right through a solid wall. If I was being scared and caught up in the moment, maybe I wouldn't notice. But I did, and now I'm pulling at these threads and my whole sweater is destroyed.

At the very least, this film is saved by a largely excellent cast. Raymond Cruz is chewing up the scenery like a woodchipper on full blast, and while he'll hardly be as iconically weird as someone like Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, he's got a very strange energy going on that is quite compelling. And bless her heart, Linda Cardellini is throwing her all into this film. Her throaty roar of fear as she works desperately to protect her children is bone-chilling, and you buy every second of it. It sucks that the stuff she's screaming at is such fatuous bullshit, but that's certainly no fault of hers.

But there's a lot of people whose fault it is, and I'm questioning why they decided to make a movie about La Llorona in the first place, considering they clearly don't know who she is.

TL;DR: The Curse of La Llorona is further proof that even the Conjuring spinoff movies know almost nothing but diminishing returns.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 894
Reviews In This Series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016) 
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Tears For Fears: The Penultimate Peril

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2019
Director: Damir Catic
Cast: Nichole Ceballos, James Ezrin, Ron Gelner 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

Once upon a time in 2013, there was a film called Her Cry: La Llorona Investigation. It was a microbudget found footage film created by a senior assistant manager at an Edwards multiplex in Texas that saw a local release and quietly vanished into the dark night of indie film apocrypha. It was one of the films on my longlist when I initially researched this project, but I had to scratch it off because it just wasn't available for public consumption.

Cue the impending release of The Curse of La Llorona. One week before, WildEye Releasing snuck onto Amazon clutching the distribution rights to Her Cry and peddling a DVD now titled The La Llorona Curse. What a wild coincidence, one might say! Even though you and I both know that they just grabbed whatever related property they could get their hands on, I will be referring to the film by its new title and release date, because for all intents and purposes it hasn't existed in the greater film market until now.

It turns out all you need is a Ouija board to summon a slimy distributor.

So, The La Llorona Curse (which crudely shoehorns its title card in at the beginning, even though they forgot to excise the Her Cry title card drop a couple minutes later on) is about a paranormal investigation team in South Texas who run a TV show with inscrutable degrees of success. They're successful enough that certain interviewees have seen it and they have enough fans to demand followups to popular episodes, but when an intern shows up on site for her paranormal training she is shocked that there are cameras filming her.

It's best not to think too hard about that. Anyway, the intern in question is Andrea (Gabrielle Santamauro), and she's joined teammates James (James Ezrin) and Brian (Everardo Guzman) in an ancient house of spirits that was once owned by renowned explorer Hernán Cortes (as played by a generic suburban tract home). This is the site where sorority girl Tina (Nichole Ceballos) was haunted by La Llorona several years ago - in fact she has been locked in that room right over there since then! And nobody fed her, I guess, so I don't know why when they see her they expect that she won't be inhabited by the spirit of La Llorona. Oh well. 

Será será.

I won't dive into the plot any further than that, because there really isn't one. In the cold open, which involves an interview with one of the last people to see any of these kids alive, the interviewer explains that he pieced together what he could from the footage they left behind, excising everything but the important events and "some that are not so important." Well let me tell you what, the whole movie seems composed of the latter, unless the police considered "amateur actors ad-libbing for full minutes on end" to be incredibly important to the investigation.

I don't want to harp on the amateur cast and filmmakers for screwing around with a camera and having fun. I've participated in my fair share of projects that were never supposed to see the light of day. But I can blame WildEye Releasing for scooping it up and trying to trick people into watching it, because it's not exactly a fountain of fascinating entertainment. Just because I knew exactly what I was getting myself into doesn't mean that a whole bunch of unsuspecting knuckleheads on Amazon need to see this film.

I do want to highlight a couple moments from actress Gabrielle Santamauro, however. She injects the film with a delightful and much-needed shot of adrenaline during an ad-libbed monologue where she desperately tries to convince the others to leave the house. She throws her whole body into the performance, hands flapping like she's batting away an entire Amityville film's worth of flies as her mouth runs a mile a minute. It's not a Meryl Streep moment, but she's incredibly engrossing to watch. And there is one facet of her role that gives the film its only moment of subtlety. When a priest visits to do the obligatory "this is beyond the realm of God" bit, there is a moment when she clearly wants to say a curse word, but nervously looks at the Father and switches streams mid-sentence. It's the only moment where anybody seems to be actually inhabiting a character, and while it's not a wow zowie going-on-the-reel bit, it's something I really respected her for doing.

You go, girl!

Unfortunately for me, beyond those moments this movie doesn't have particularly anything to offer, even to the larger canon of La Llorona. They don't seem to have any interest in using the legend as anything other than a generic Paranormal Activity possession riff. There's almost nothing to do with children, rivers, drowning, or even the literal namesake of the original film, crying. She's just a generic spooky shadow seen in the corner of rooms who does nothing interesting.

This new movie doesn't look like it will be particularly good, but at least it seems remotely aware of the iconography of the character, and for that I will thank it. I need to be lifted out of the cookie-cutter, milquetoast morass that these movies became in the mid-2000's, with very few exceptions.

TL;DR: The La Llorona Curse is everything a shitty early 2010's found footage movie promises to be.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 956

Friday, April 19, 2019

Tears For Fears: Boulevard Of Broken Dreams

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2016
Director: Rigoberto Castañeda
Cast: Carlos Aragón, Mauricio García Lozano, Adrià Collado
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may recall from earlier in this marathon, the film KM 31, which reinterpreted La Llorona as a roadside legend with a heavy dose of J-horror imagery, is one of the better entries in her mythology. Director Rigoberto Castañeda is certainly one of the best we've had on hand, someone who knows how to actually craft an atmospheric, spooky image. So I wouldn't say I was necessarily excited that he made a sequel to the film a full decade later, but I felt I was at the very least in safe hands for one of these final legs of my trek through all of Llorona-dom.

Plus, I've been so badly hurt by some of these movies, this one couldn't possibly sting as bad.

Shockingly, this is also a direct sequel to KM 31. We pick up seconds later, wrapping up that film's ending stinger (with a truly wild zombie-esque gore effect) before cutting to ten years later. Our surviving hottie Nuño (Adrià Collado) has been institutionalized and Detective Martín Ugalde (Carlos Aragón) has retired. That is, until he's approached to help out with a new case. In a neighborhood quite close to that lonely stretch of highway in the Desert de los Leones, seven children go missing in a bizarre pattern every couple years. The police suspect a group they've dubbed The Seven Missing Children Gang (apparently it doesn't take creativity to rise the ranks of the police system), but Ugalde is hired by a high-ranking politician to investigate the disappearance of her child because she knows he has experiences outside the mundane realm.

The fact that he has experience with literally this exact same entity is something that nobody seems to realize, not even him, so we're stuck with another film about people investigating La Llorona, even though we've already seen all of this before.

But at least we get to rip off Poltergeist now instead of The Grudge!

So, it turns out I was partly right. Rigoberto Castañeda certainly hasn't lost his flair for uncanny imagery. La Llorona arrives in the homes of their victims via a puddle with viscous water dripping backwards toward the ceiling, which is terrifying. And the CGI that renders her body (which is shown early and often in this one) is at least a little smoother and more believable. But his talent for imagery extends beyond the horror sequences. The cool color palette continues to drench his tale in grim stillness, and Ugalde's apartment is a lovely metaphor for his mental state, dominated by a shattered fish tank piled to the brim with empty beer bottles.

Unfortunately, he seems to be the M. Night Shyamalan of Mexico, because while his visual craft is on point, the man really should be farming his scripts out to somebody who knows what they're doing. The Seven Missing Children Gang isn't a sly insult to the police, it's just a symptom of the screenplays's deep inferiority. While the first film didn't make a whole lot of sense, it at least worked within the J-horror framework it was going for. This film makes even less sense, and it sadly lacks the anchor of interesting characters the first one had going for it. It's just a whole lot of people telling us that they're smart while making incredibly dumb choices and reciting flat, uninspired lines all the way along.

Pictured: Me reacting to any dialogue in the movie.

I think the deepest problem is the film's choice to center itself around Ugalde. I assume he was the only actor willing to come back for the full shoot, but there's no emotional center to the character, and his presence forces the film to contort itself into a hardboiled retired detective story rather than a bona fide horror flick. The mystery was the worst part of the original film, and now it's the entire focus of the sequel, doubling down on pointlessness because - as I mentioned - we've already solved this f**king mystery!

By the time it swings into a totally bonkers third act involving a heist at the sanitarium, a psychic child, and a literal ticking time bomb, it has completely run out of goodwill by crushing you in a vise of sheer boredom for an hour. It's certainly not the worst of these films (there is a script, and you can see everything), but it's maybe even more disappointing because it completely fails to build on the solid potential of the original.

TL;DR: KM 31-2 is a self-indulgent, lamely repetitive sequel that has no reason to exist.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 814
Reviews In This Series
KM 31 (Castañeda, 2006)
KM 31-2 (Castañeda, 2016)

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Tears For Fears: Third Verse, Worst Of The Worst

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2012
Director: Javier Barbera
Cast: Josh DeLozier, Maria Pallas, Chris Anderson
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

I probably shouldn't be surprised considering the current and historical state of the obscure horror film, but I can't say when I started my research for this project that I expected to be covering entries from at least four different franchises. Two of them were Llorona-related films from different franchises (Santo and Las Leyendas), but two more were full-on franchises entirely devoted to La Llorona, neither of which I had ever heard of before. KM 31 and its sequel were one thing, but The Wailer having spawned a whole trilogy is not something I could have conceived in my wildest direct-to-video nightmares.

Be prepared for the most dynamic images from this film being about as interesting as this one.

So while The Wailer 2 shocked me by being in total, direct continuity with the first one, the five years later The Wailer 3 gives me exactly what I expected the last time: a film that doesn't even try to remain connected, just telling a very bad story about a totally different Llorona and slapping the franchise title on there for attention. 

This movie in particular concerns itself with the exploits of Daniel (Josh DeLozier) who on a begrudging trip to visit his mother-in-law with his wife and two kids encounters La Llorona in a swimming pool. And this certainly doesn't take place in Mexico. It feels firmly North of San Diego even, come to think of it. His family is killed and he is left wheelchair-bound. This is no later than thirty minutes in, mind you, and the next hour or so is him shouting at a nurse named Africa (Nicole Simpson) and not really doing much to solve the mystery of La Llorona or defeating her.

Also a magical turtle heals his legs at one point, because why the hell not.

Look, there's no point beating around the bush. This movie is shit. It is an aimless, meandering movie that climaxes sixty minutes before credits roll and endlessly cycles between scenes of Africa flatly chanting, "You should eat something. I like it when you clean your plate," and the same stock footage of a storm brewing over the boring suburban house he's staying in even though it's where his entire family dies and it doesn't even belong to him. He certainly wasn't in his mother-in-law's will, because she spends the entire movie sniping at him and insulting her daughter's choice in men.

In fact, every single character in this movie seems to hate each other. It's the exact opposite of a movie like Cherry Falls where everybody involved seems to have intense, crackling sexual chemistry even if they're playing relatives. Here, it seems like right before filming every shot somebody ripped a fart that smelled like an open sewer, and everybody thinks somebody else did it. Daniel even hates Africa, whining and shouting at her every chance he gets, like a petulant child.

Maybe that's the only emotion the actors could summon, because the performances are across the board uniquely atrocious. These people could have hired the cast of Troll 2 as acting coaches. Every line reading is either the monotonous drone of a bored robot or full volume shouting that sends dust down from the rattling rafters. Although, to be fair to these poor actors, the dialogue is literally impossible to perform. It's florid, stilted, purple prose where a woman who is visiting her childhood home for the first time in a decade has this to say: "Regardless of time, I can see that everything remains exactly the same."

Ah yes, that classic refrain.

Then there's the fact that this film is scary exactly zero percent of the time, and even the first act fake scares are ludicrous (they involve a water pipe, and then... a washcloth on top of a turtle). La Llorona is barely in the movie, except as a pale white ghostly figure just kind of drifting like The Lady in the Water. There is a microscopic attempt at backstory that is both lazy (she drowned her kids, the end) and far too late in the movie, and that's the entirety of their efforts to characterize the villain of the piece in any way. 

At the very least, The Wailer 3 is unique enough in its badness that it rounds the horn into being bad-good rather than just excruciating. I still don't think I'd recommend it even for a party full of bad movie lovers (too little happens to be worth maintaining any attention), but pretty much any scene taken out of context has some beautiful little gem of stupid to hold onto. That's the only compliment I'm willing to give The Wailer 3, but I had a much better time with it than some of the other dregs of this marathon.

TL;DR: The Wailer 3 is a devastatingly bad movie, no bones about it.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 862
Reviews In This Series
The Wailer (Navia, 2006)
The Wailer 2 (Miller, 2007)
The Wailer 3 (Barbera, 2012)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tears For Fears: ¡Ay, Mis Hijos!

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2011
Director: Alberto Rodriguez
Cast: Andrés Couturier, Mónica Del Carmen, Rafael Inclán
Run Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

This marathon has run us through every subgenre of horror possible (and will continue to do so until the bitter end), but I certainly can say that the one I never expected to be covering was children's animation. Well it turns out the creepy campfire story instincts that led to projects like Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? being produced for children aren't isolated to the Anglophone world. Las Leyendas (Legends) is a massively popular Mexican animated film series, where children face off against all kinds of legendary monsters, including El Chupacabra, El Charro Negro, the Mummies of Guanajuato, and... you guessed it. 

Surprise! It's La Llorona!

La Leyenda de la Llorona is the second film in the franchise after it debuted with La Leyenda de la Nahuala in 2007. I was worried I might be missing some vital context for the story of the franchise, but luckily these stories are definitely standalone. As long as you're willing to accept without question the fact that our young hero Andres (Andrés Couturier) flies around in a hot air balloon with two skeleton kids, the ghost of an ancient knight, and a dragon named Alebrije (Rafael Inclán). Easy peasy.

Set in the 18th century in the indigenous region of Xochimilco, this is the story of a town besieged by La Llorona, who has been kidnapping children left and right, as she tends to do. Andres is separated from his party, who must battle their way through the horrors of an island of living puppets while he teams up with local irritating child Kika (Mónica Del Carmen), who wants to rescue her brother from La Llorona's clutches.

And though she shares a name with an Almodóvar film, she does not share its gravitas or grace. Or volume.

This film hails from the grand tradition of the Tim Burtons and Scooby Doos of yesteryear, and it's certainly a worthy entry in the creepy animation genre. And while we're at it, this is absolutely one of the scarier cinematic Lloronas out there (and while I've seen a great many of them this year, I can say the bell curve on actual horror has been low). 

They do pull a major punch on her backstory, saying that her kids died in an accident when she wasn't watching them rather than having her drown them, but they're still dead is the thing, so at least there's still a bit of an edge here. And the way she wails, drifting down empty moonlit streets is ethereal and strange, helped along quite a bit by the medium of animation that allows her to actually seem ghostly and inhuman rather than some P.A. in a fright wig. And the subplot here is even scarier, because creepy puppets never ever fail.

And speaking of the animation itself, it's... while I wouldn't say beautiful, it's certainly interesting. The backgrounds - especially the buildings in town - are rendered with 3D computer animation, while the characters interacting them are more classically 2D and cartoonish. It's a curious juxtaposition that does draw the eye, and the character designs are pleasantly round and surreal; the adult women in particular are drawn with elegant curving lines and detailed textures that are entirely appealing.

And then there's whatever this is. 

All that said, Leyenda is very kiddy. That's certainly not a design flaw, it's doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing. I just don't count myself within the demographic for whom fart/pee/booger jokes can sustain an entire feature film, even one that's barely scraping 80 minutes. There is a false scare built around a pun on La Llorona's catch phrase "Ay, mis hijos" that was satisfying after watching a dozen of these things, and a joke involving a mariachi boat interrupting a quiet contemplative moment that both got me, but all in all I was unmoved. Much in the same way that my adult digestive system is no longer appreciative to me downing a bag of Fun Dip, La Leyenda de La Llorona is not appealing to my film palate, but certainly could have been back in the day.

In terms of movies specifically geared for young children (and I mean young), you could hardly go wrong here. It's probably not convenient for anyone reading this that the movie is currently only streaming in Spanish with English subtitles, because a child old enough to have the patience and reading comprehension for this has probably already aged too far past its interest bracket, but hey! There are kids everywhere who do speak Spanish and they've been given quite a treat here. 

TL;DR: La Leyenda de la Llorona is definitely a fine film I would recommend to children, but not one that really speaks to me.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 841

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Tears For Fears: One Of The Most Bizarre Crimes In The Annals Of Mexican Cinema History

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

A caveat: I had to watch this film in unsubtitled Spanish, which I'm not entirely fluent in despite what my AP testing certificate says. Although the entire script reads like "Buenos días, jefe." "Buenos días." "¿Cómo estás?"¿Bien, y tú?" so it wasn't exactly a challenge.

Year: 2007
Director: Aurora Martínez
Cast: Brenda Castro, Eleazar Garcia Jr., Antonio Lozano 
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

2004's Las Lloronas is my favorite film of this marathon so far, and my theory on that is because it's directed by a woman who actually brought a new perspective to the character other than fear and distrust of a hysterical female. Today's film on the docket, La Verdadera Historia de La Llorona (AKA The True Story of La Llorona), is the third and final film in the marathon to be directed by a woman, and between it and the same year's The Cry, it turns out that being a woman doesn't just naturally make you better at this.

But if you think about it, it's true equality when we accept that female filmmakers can fail just as hard as male filmmakers have for generations and don't get too upset about it or blame their entire sex. So really La Verdadera Historia de La Llorona is the most feminist movie I've ever seen.

I can't find a single screenshot for this movie, so I'm just gonna divide this article with images of famous Hispanic stars dramatically crying.

So the plot of this movie is... thin. A woman who works as a secretary is also sleeping with her married boss. Literally the only times she goes to work are when they're having sex or when she stops by to tell him she's pregnant. She finds herself sleepwalking around the streets at night weeping and crying "!Ay, mis hijos!" a behavior that seems really familiar, though I can't quite put my finger on it. She eventually makes nice with the boss's wife and they kinda sorta plot against him but not really, and there's not actually a Llorona involved beyond her nighttime adventures. So... Yeah. They made this into a movie.

Don't ask me why, it wasn't MY idea.

The plot, which is absolutely the story for a telenovela that never made it to air, is pure blunt force trauma, simple as simple can get, and the entire construction of the movie matches that. It seems to have been sound mixed by someone wearing big foam fingers on both hands, the good people wear white and the bad people wear black in case you're confused, and they clearly didn't have the budget to hire extras. This movie is barren of human beings to the point that, when the secretary and her boss close the door to have a private conversation, you wonder why they bothered because there isn't a single soul in the building, or for several blocks around it. It wouldn't be difficult to find evidence for a fan theory that this movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic Mexico. Though, come to think of it, that would require it to have fans in the first place.

Thankfully La Verdadera Historia has very little dialogue, so the actors don't have time to leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth, but this also provides absolutely no depth for characters who are already thin enough to play Dickensian orphans. And the movie fails to provide even a single scare, though I'm not entirely certain that it's attempting to. There's a lot of focus on chores in the bathroom (we see our heroine getting ready in excruciating detail every morning, including brushing her teeth without water like a madwoman), which would seem to be an obvious attempt to set up a mirror scare in the medicine cabinet. But by the time the movie ends you realize the director just really wanted us to know how clean our girl's mouth is.

An artist's rendering of me by the end of these 80 minutes.

I hear if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all, so I should probably bring some positivity so I don't just have to post a blank page instead of a review. When the secretary wanders around the moonlit streets wailing like La Llorona, her scream is very powerful and a little creepy, though the five minute chunks in which this happens (as well as the fact that these scenes all amount to nothing) really deflate the atmosphere. 

Really, the only thing that I unequivocally liked is how absolutely mind-bogglingly tall her boss is. Every time the actor walks onscreen it's like Herman Munster has barged into this office. I half expect every doorway to have a chunk taken out of it that's exactly the size of his head. 

Is that a compliment? Who cares. It's time to end this incredibly short review because there's literally nothing else in the movie worth wasting keystrokes on. "True story," my ass. This is hardly a story to begin with, and it is a spitefully dull bungle of the Llorona legend. This certainly isn't my Llorona, and though none of these movies have managed to get her 100% right, this is the only one to get her 100% wrong. Thank you, next.

TL;DR: La Verdadera Historia de La Llorona is an absolutely abhorrent bore that completely, willfully misunderstands La Llorona.
Rating: 1/10
Word Count: 926

Monday, March 25, 2019

Tears For Fears: The Crying Lame

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2007
Director: Benjamin Williams
Cast: Tom Parker, Ana Patricia Rojo, Dee Wallace
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

One of the reasons I love exploring low budget cinema is the people making it. They exist in a space entirely separate from Hollywood. Sure, this means sometimes (in fact, most times) the films aren't particularly well made and frequently aren't very "good," by the most objective measurement of cinema it's possible to use. But the stories these people choose to tell tend to be entirely personal and unique, free of the rules, restrictions, and tampering of the studio system. Even when they're doing their best to imitate Hollywood genres and tropes, it's distorted through the lens of an entirely non-professional person in a distinctly non-Hollywood place.

This was true of 1991's atrocious La Llorona, which was a lovely exploration of a Mexican fishing village that thought it was a scary movie about La Llorona. 2007's J-ok'el (pronounced "Joe-quelle") is certainly better, but works in a very similar anthropological vein. From square one, in fact. J-ok'el is a name for La Llorona apparently taken from the indigenous Mayan dialect of Tzotzil, something I never would have learned if not for this deeply bland, mediocre film.

Whoops, did I show my hand too early?

When his half-sister joins the ranks of a rising number of missing children in Chiapas, Mexico, American George Christensen (Tom Parker) arrives in town to investigate her disappearance. He enlists the help of Carmen Romero (Ana Patricia Rojo), a local woman who has offered to translate, and pointedly does not receive the help of his estranged mother Helen (Dee Wallace), who resents him for not having visited her in a decade.

What he's being doing for all these years, we'll never know because this movie doesn't care about such pretty things as his life before, how he can afford to spend so much time away from work, or what he's interested in beyond denouncing superstition and religions bullshit so Carmen can hem and haw and give this film its only minuscule scrap of conflict. Of course George is wrong. J-ok'el is haunting the town, snatching away children who live in broken homes.

The sheer amount of broken homes in this small town is not subtext, nor something the film remotely wishes to explore. In case you were wondering.

So! J-ok'el is, almost completely by accident, an expression of the racial and social strata of Chiapas. Its plot primarily follows the separation between a white American family and the town itself. Though Helen has lived in town for many years, married a high class local, and is an honorary member of the community, she rarely strays away from her resort-like mansion. And though George assures himself he cares about all the children in town, not just his sister, his refusal to accept the beliefs and traditions of Chiapas is a constant impediment to his investigation (in one of the first scenes, the police worry about how it would look if they gave preferential treatment to the needs of a white stranger more than that of the locals - in fact, its depiction of the police is frequently J-ok'el's most intentional and interesting facet throughout).

But on top of that, J-ok'el also depicts the strained relationship between the local Mexicans and the indigenous people who live just outside of town. The Llorona figure haunting this movie is implicitly blamed on them, and that's no accident. 

Of course, this is all Yours Truly reading between the lines on a tedious movie that mostly wants to be a Lifetime mystery about Mexican folklore. But the fact is, everything I mentioned is present, purposeful or not. Benjamin Williams' choice to film and set the movie in Chiapas (presumably a town the producer lives in or at least has some familiarity with or access to) gives it a texture and complexity it wouldn't have has if it was a Hollywood production set in some nameless desert town.

And though Parker would be surely cut out of a full-on Hollywood production, weirdly, Dee Wallace would probably still be in it. That woman has noting but hustle.

And now, the hammer falls. J-ok'el is a rough watch. It has decent cinematography and an almost too good score, but it lacks even a frisson of horror. The bulk of the movie involves itself with George wandering around being an asshole to natives, but when the alleged scary scenes creep in, they deflate even the milquetoast, flabby tension the film drums up between its characters. It's astonishingly lame; J-ok'el is depicted almost entirely by a bit of white cloth flicked in front of the camera by some offscreen P.A. 

This is arguably in service of a third act twist (a twist that both destroys every potential coherent theme the film might have built while simultaneously redeeming the whole affair by centering a totally batshit performance and hilariously out of left field), but in this cassette end utterly fails to justify the means. The means still could have tried to be scary or atmospheric, instead of flat and ploddingly edited.

By the time it gets to the bizarre interludes where George chats up a random French woman in a bar, or awkwardly interacts with a stock footage leopard, you're begging on your hands and knees for the torment to end. And the plot's complete failure to be interesting does little to distract you from how much it's riddled with holes (why exactly are there still children playing outside alone at night two weeks deep into an unprecedented spate of kidnappings?).

J-ok'el at least had the slightest sense of what it was capable of, which blows the '91 Llorona out of the water. But literally the only viable reason to watch this is if ou want to follow along with my marathon but hate subtitles and are thus incapable of watching the many other, better, non-English entries therein.

TL;DR: J-ok'el is surprisingly well made for such tragically tedious BS.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1035

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tears For Fears: The City That Puts You To Sleep


Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2007
Director: Bernadine Santistevan
Cast: Roberto Quintana Jr., Jayden Vargas, Adriana Domínguez
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Now that we're in the 2000's, the media landscape has shifted considerably. The Internet made the lines between countries a little more porous, and the ease of digital filmmaking allowed more small productions to take place. Both of these factors probably contribute to the fact that we've been getting our first Llorona films that were actually shot in English rather than dubbed or subtitled. And The Cry, our topic for the day, seems to my knowledge to be the very first of any of these pictures to be created by an American. Maybe that's why it sucks, or maybe it's just because low budget digital filmmaking in the mid-2000's was for the most part a completely unchecked running tap of sewage.

Brace yourselves for another handful of the only random screenshots I could find for this movie! Hooray 2007!

So, the plot, insofar as there is one. This film transposes the Llorona into modern New York City, as played by an endlessly recurring exterior of some random block as shot by a guerrilla cameraperson in the back seat of a moving car. There is a rash of child murders going on, where women kinda stare at the river for a bit then go off their progeny in a fit of Llorona-driven madness, which gives them eyes that are supposed to look tear-stained but mostly give the impression that they're fist-deep into an untreated bout of pinkeye.

Detective Scott (Christian Camargo) and his partner Detective Perez (Carlos Leon) are on the case, driving around town investigating all sorts of deadly incidents. Scott has a personal connection to this case (his son was murdered by his wife several years ago) so it's kind of driving him mad. That's generally how these things seem to go, alas. They refuse to believe La Llorona is responsible for a huge chunk of the running time, despite the frequent calls from psychic Maria (Adriana Domínguez), who keeps calling them to say she knows exactly what's happening. They steadfastly refuse to give her any attention, to the point that they literally don't meet one another in person until the final ten or fifteen minutes of the film.

Also she has a son, because if you're in a Llorona movie and you don't have children to be imperiled, what are you even doing here?

The most exciting thing about this movie is that it's the second in this marathon to have a female director. The first, 2004's Las Lloronas, was a triumph of taking a feminist approach to the material, but true equality means that women can fail just as hard as men. Director Bernadine Santistevan began her career in the world of venture capital and private equity, which you might conclude didn't quite afford her the skills necessary to bring together a horror production.

That said, after a lot more experience on sets, I'd like to see what she could come up with, because there is exactly one scene here that has a spark of zany joy that really speaks to me. I'm speaking of the sequence that reveals exactly how Scott's son came to shuffle off this mortal coil: [SPOILERS] He opens up a new jar of chocolate sauce instead of using the one that was already open, so his mom murdered the crap out of him, a reaction I'm sure most mothers can relate to [END SPOILERS]. There's also a pretty solid bit of black comedy involving a body that has been nibbled beyond recognition: "The good news is, the fish population is back!"

Beyond that unfortunately, we just get a lot of aimless meandering with a bunch of emotion conversations that circle around the point of the film endlessly. This is interspersed with too few, too tedious Llorona kill sequences, though we're at least treated to a spot of what I've dubbed "Llorona-vision."

Do I have a screenshot of that? Of course not! But at least you can have the pleasure of looking upon how woefully underlit this movie was, on top of everything else.

It's inept at pretty much every level of filmmaking it's possible to be. The scare scenes lean on weird close-ups that are completely illegible, Scott's motivations are equally murky (the moment he finally comes across Maria he pulls a gun on her, as if they haven't been speaking to one another this whole time), and the Llorona never really shows up as anything more than an allegedly creepy whisper spouting stilted dialogue like "cry with meeeeeee..."

This movie also commits the sin of putting in a fake scare at the worst possible moment, destroying every ounce of character they've attempted to build up until now. While investigating at what I believe to be Central Park, or something the filmmakers desperately hope we will assume is Central Park, Perez jumps out at Scott. Right in the middle of an investigation that has nearly cracked him in half, and when they believe there might currently be a ticking clock over a young boy's head. It's unprofessional, it's uncouth, and even worse it's unbelievable. These aren't exactly searing portraits of American manhood to begin with, and when the movie itself is attempting to demolish every scrap of character credibility they've built up, it's an astonishing disappointment.

So that's about that with The Cry. It is the movie that most challenged my commitment to this project, even one as surprisingly rich with quality as it has been before this moment. It is an insufferable slog that fails to properly transplant the Llorona to America, fails to terrify, and even fails to engage on the slightest, most minuscule level.

TL;DR: The Cry is a tedious movie with about half a redeeming quality.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1002