FilmSpace: The Curse of La Llorona; Tolkien

Film critic Calum Cooper reviews two upcoming releases. Screening from 3 May are The Curse of La Llorona, which is only frightening in its capacity to bore, and Tolkien, a pedestrian but relatively engaging biopic.

The Curse of La Llorona – ★☆☆☆☆

The only thing worse than a bad movie is a boring movie, and The Curse of La Llonoa bores to such tedious degrees that drying paint seems riveting by comparison. My egregious dismissal spawns from the squandered potential in its admittedly creepy idea. Worse than that, there’s simply nothing singular or noteworthy about its presentation. It’s about as irritatingly mundane as modern horror movies go.

Another spin-off to The Conjuring films, The Curse of La Llorona is based on a real Mexican folklore, and a disturbing one too. La Llorona, aka The Weeping Woman, was a mother from 1670s Mexico who drowned her own children in a blind rage as vengeance towards her husband. Regretting what she’d done, she took her own life, and now wonders the earth as an undead spirit, stealing and killing children whom she mistakes for her own.

In this film, La Llorona comes for the children of Anna (Linda Cardellini). Anna is an LA cop from 1973, who finds the children of a woman called Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) locked in a closet, supposedly to protect them from La Llorona. When those children turn up dead, the spirit that was haunting them decides to go after Anna and her children, Chris and Samantha. The usual antics of seen-it-before plot points, religious imagery, thin as paper characters, and the always frustrating jump scares proceed to numb us into a craving for the oblivion.

La Llorona disappoints because it comes from a franchise that has a sound enough grasp on how to create effective horror. Say what you will about Annabelle or The Nun, but The Conjuring films are genuinely creepy thanks to inventive craftsmanship built around interesting concepts. With a tale as disturbing as La Llorona, the film could’ve gone in all sorts of directions for the purpose of fright.

However, it instead opts to bore and annoy. On top of focusing on the blandest of characters in this family, the story feels as mechanical as its scares. It’s so brittle in its bare-bonedness that it feels more like a collection of scenes taped together than a flowing narrative. The outcome of the plot is ridiculously easy to piece together, but it’s the setups that get to me. They feel forced. Most of them occur due to a character making stupid or out of nowhere decisions – e.g. getting out of a car for no discernible reason only for La Llorona to spot them. Because we don’t fully know the motivation behind those choices, the setups for the scares feel more like conveniences for the plot rather than terrifying inevitabilities or mistakes. There’s a formulaic nature to the story and characters that induces sleep more than fear.

I completely checked out by the halfway mark, occasionally made to sit upright by the obnoxiously loud noises the film mistakes for scares.

This translates to the filmmaking too. Horror is so versatile a genre because there’s a thousand and one ways to do it effectively. The film does have some cool tricks concerning reflections in mirrors and water to be fair. But it otherwise sticks to modern tropes. And, frustratingly, it’s the lazy ones. Saturated darkness, slow dragged out camerawork around insipid hallways, and of course silence being cut by a loud screech, or bang. That’s not scaring your audience. That’s setting them up to startle them. There’s a huge difference.

The reliance on these jump scares are the foundations for most of my issues. But it lacks in substance regardless. Redundant techniques aside, the characters are unbelievably drab, giving the actors nothing to work with, and the script is a shambles. It barely examines the potential of its spiritual figure and her lore in favour of poor dialogue and painfully shoehorned comedy. Since the characters have little to nothing that makes them investable or relatable, we find ourselves indifferent to their plight, particularly since it seems to happen to them by chance rather than unfortunate fate. Then, of course, there’s the out of nowhere twists it chooses to utilise during the climax because even the film seems bored of itself by that point.

It leaves us with a film that has virtually nothing to latch onto visually, emotionally or thematically. I completely checked out by the halfway mark, occasionally made to sit upright by the obnoxiously loud noises the film mistakes for scares.

We all know that one person who takes too much pride in startling you by jumping from round the corner and yelling Boo. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get infuriated by that after the seventeenth time of being subjected to it then you’ll have a ball with The Curse of La Llorona. Otherwise I’d advise you avoid this sluggish snoozefest. Death by drowning is often foreshadowed in this film, but death by boredom is something not even the grimmest of spirits wish to inflict.

Tolkien – ★★★☆☆

Appropriately enough, the same day I saw Tolkien was the same day I saw this week’s Game of Thrones, an awesome belter of an episode that contained a battle comparable to Helm’s Deep in its size and suspense. Helm’s Deep is often seen as the signature battle of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was birthed from the mind of J.R.R Tolkien, now the subject of his own biopic.

But the film doesn’t examine his development of Lord of the Rings so much as his backstory and inspiration for the epic saga. We begin in his early childhood when he and his brother (a character otherwise pushed to the side after his introduction) are fostered after the death of their mother. Sent to a boarding school, the film depicts Tolkien as a schoolboy, a university student, and a soldier in WW1, (with portrayals from Harry Gilby and Nicholas Hoult in his later years) as he and his friends form a group dedicated to changing the world through the arts like literature and painting. Tolkien also begins to fall in love with a woman named Edith (Lily Collins), and his experiences with her, his friends, and the war all reveal his inspiration for what would become one of the world’s most recognised works.

I have mixed feelings on Tolkien. On the one hand it’s generally presented well. Visually the movie is arresting, display an array of stunning colours and imagery that represent the moments where inspiration comes to Tolkien for later down the line, such as the destruction of the war. They allow the viewer to piece together the small components that created the colossal whole that was Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. By presenting them in such vibrant or visceral cinematography and editing allows us to connect the dots without any words being spoken at all.

Yet when dialogue is spoken, it can be enjoyably witty, particularly when it comes to Tolkien’s quips and witticisms towards his three friends. In fact, the film is its most entertaining when it concerns the friendship of these four boys. They’re products of their time for sure, but it’s hard not to feel the chemistry the four of them share. They push each other to do their best, even when they get on each other’s nerves, believing that a world without artistic mastery is not one worth living at all. From this, we can derive both the themes of Tolkien’s works and of the film itself, such as the power of friendship or unity through language, while still being able to admire the performances, particularly from Hoult and the four young men playing the friends in their younger years.

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But on the other hand, the film isn’t always focused. The Tolkien estate have not endorsed the film, supposedly due to its historical inaccuracies and the inclusion of the rather controversial romance between Tolkien and Edith. Whether this is warranted, I’m not sure, but the romantic elements of the film are easily the weakest moments. You don’t entirely believe in it since their time together feels secondary to the central friendships, when the film seems to be presenting them as equals. They have some scenes together, but rather than show the love growing, it seems to expect us just to go with it, which is very damaging as we’re supposed to believe that its strength spans decades (and no, Hoult does not make a convincing 18-year-old despite his capabilities as an actor).

Even if it were solely about Tolkien’s friendships, as it should’ve been, the film follows such a pedestrian structure for a biopic. It’s paced well enough, but it sticks to convention as if afraid that there isn’t sufficient material to experiment with. Tolkien’s captivation with language and how it binds culture and art together is fascinating, but it’s pushed to the side in favour of a narrative that doesn’t explore the wider potential of its ideas. For a story about the man behind something as revolutionary as the Middle Earth sagas, the film feels far too safe, which will undoubtedly put some people off of the overall product.

However, I do think there is something here for the right audience member. I was never bored by the film, remaining somewhat engaged with it, mostly because I was drawn to its themes on the importance and fragility of the arts. But I imagine it’s better as a Sunday evening watch as opposed to seeking it out in cinemas. There’s elements to admire, but it’s a case where individual segments are greater than the whole.

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