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By Vernor Rodgers
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"CHILD'S PLAY"

Reboots of horror series have become common, and as indicated by the success of last fall's latest "Halloween," they do generate interest. While this is fine, it also is a bit of a shame that studios put money behind these movies while ignoring  a rich treasury of original indy horror cinema that has to rely on film festivals and other platforms to find its audience. That aside, this latest "Child's Play," directed by Lars Klevberg and written by Tyler Burton Smith, is something of a tribute to the original "Child's Play" series, the brainchild of Don Mancini.

The story again centers around young Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) and his single mom, Karen (Aubrey Plaza). In this version, Andy is older than the Andy in the original, and is now age 13. But he is a staple of horror genre kids -- basically an outcast. Karen, trying to make ends meet by working in the returns department of a Wal Mart-like store, also has a less than stellar boyfriend, Shane (David Lewis), who really is a jerk's jerk. 

Feeling guilty about the life she is offering to Andy, Karen one day claims a defective Buddi doll, the latest in AI technology, unaware that this particular doll was deliberately tinkered with.

Things start out sweet enough, as the doll, now calling itself Chucky (and voiced by Mark Hamill), strives to be Andy's best friend and playmate. This Chucky does not have the mischievous/sinister countenance of earlier Chucky; just a wide-eyed, I-want-to-please-you innocence. Soon, though, the doll's programmed desire to keep Andy happy goes awry and increasingly more sinister and deadly.

So there are some vicious and gruesome kills -- compound fractures, dismemberment, the top of a head being shredded and skinned -- and ominously, the evidence seems to implicate Andy, raising suspicions of a police detective, Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry), who lives in the same apartment house as Andy and Karen.

About the only good thing that comes out of this is Andy does make a couple of friends, Pugg (Ty Consiglio) and Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos), who are drawn into helping Andy diffuse the rapidly escalating horror and body count.

People who were skeptical about a "Child's Play" reboot mostly are giving this new version a thumbs up. Buddi/Chucky is the epitome of the toy from hell -- meant to be cute but ultimately creepy and dangerous instead. This "Child's Play" is a decent enough tribute to the original despite being saddled with a recycled story line.

 "CHILD'S PLAY" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/PeHNLikDiVw

  

"ANNABELLE COMES HOME"

While on the topic of creepy playthings: "Annabelle Comes Home" is the third movie about the handcrafted doll that has become a conduit for all sorts of nasty paranormal shenanigans. It is also the seventh film in the "Conjuring/Annabelle" series that focuses on the true-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. This is the first of the "Annabelle" movies that actually includes the Warrens, again played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. In fact, the movie takes place inside the Warren home.

In the series timeline, "Annabell Comes Home" takes place right before the original "The Conjuring." The Warrens, after hearing about the terrifying incidents surrounding the doll, decide to take the doll and store it in the haunted artifacts room in their home.

Foolishly, they just put the doll in the back seat for the drive home, not boxed or contained in any way, and naturally there is a spooky event out on the lonely and dark road.

But they get the doll home and at first just set it on that creepy rocking chair. But Lorraine senses problems and they decide to store Annabelle in the glass casing to keep the evil contained.

This room of artifacts, which got a few scenes on earlier movies, gets a bigger role here.

The Warren's daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, replacing Sterling Jerins, who played the daughter in the earlier "Conjuring" movies) faces some tensions in school following a newspaper article about the controversial exorcism the Warrens recently conducted.

Ed and Lorraine are going on an overnight trip and hire teen Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to babysit Judy. Naturally, one of Mary Ellen's friends, Daniela (Katie Sarife), pops in to visit and at first steps into a familiar role, dating all the way back to Eddie Haskell, as the friend who is the bad influence and triggers trouble. 

While Mary Ellen is outside supervising Judy as she roller skates, Daniela snoops around the Warren home. Soon she finds the key to the artifacts room. Inevitably, she opens the glass casing where Annabelle is stashed. Nothing like unleashing the beast.

Gary Daubman, who has written all three "Annabelle" scripts (this latest assisted by James Wan), and makes his directorial debut here, does reveal the true motivation for Daniela's snooping around, which makes her a more sympathetic character.

So, with Annabelle now on the loose, all kinds of scary things happen. Since we know this is going to be a paranormal extravaganza, the main draw here is to see what creepy things are going to happen and whether or not they will drive people mad, or worse, dead.

Wilson and Farmiga have relatively small roles in the movie -- just the first 20 minutes or so then in the final scenes. So the movie rests on the shoulders of the three young ladies. Grace's Judy is a little on the strange side, a mostly somber kid who is resigned to have parents engaged in a crazy profession. Plus, she seems to have inherited some of her mother's sixth sense. The teen girls are fine, Iseman personifying the Laurie Strode good-girl babysitter and Sarife at first coming across like Strode's friends Annie and Lynda in "Halloween" although Daniela's quest is heartwrenching.

Whether or not this is the end of the Annabelle saga is not indicated. But more "Conjurings" as well as the "Nun" tie-in are coming.

This movie adds a tribute to Lorraine Warren, who died April 18 at the age of 92. Ed died in 2006.

 "ANNABELLE COMES HOME" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/bCxm7cTpBAs 

"ANNA" 

Writer/director Luc Besson has been around for awhile. It's been nearly 30 years since he made a splash with "Le Femme Nikita," with Anne Parillaud in the starring role -- as well as writing the remake "Point of No Return" with Bridget Fonda in 1993 -- and 22 years since his "The Fifth Element" came out and is now something of a classic in the science fiction genre. His last big effort, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" two years ago, was a flop in the U.S. -- only $41 million grossed. So a hit with "Anna" might be a nice boost for him.

"Anna," which harkens back to the spirit of "La Femme Nikita," did not get a good pre-release push, which is a shame because it is the essence of a summer popcorn movie.

Besson, who is known to use fashion models in his adventure movies, most notably Milla Jovovich, with whom he was married briefly -- as well as Parillaud -- has drafted Sasha Luss for the starring role in "Anna." At nearly 5-11 in height, Luss presents a striking figure in the part.

Luss, who spent her youth in Moscow, fits in as Anna, a young woman in Russia who, following the death in an auto accident of her parents, has fallen into bad times: a small-time crook boyfriend, a life mostly on the streets, drugs, the whole bit. But she has enormous potential and when she submits an online application to join the Russian Navy, she catches the attention of KGB agent and recruiter Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans), who offers her a new life. After training, Anna is brought before Olga (a gruff Helen Mirren), who after some reservations agrees to be Anna's handler. Anna has been promised by Alex that she only need serve in KGB five years then can go on with a rejuvenated private life.

Anna becomes a superstar professional assassin, which puts her on the radar of the CIA and one of its top spooks, Lenny Miller (Cilian Murphy). Miller gains some leverage in getting Anna to switch sides when she is informed -- and she shoulda already known this -- that in the world of espionage and spying and killings, you never walk away. You work until you are too old to function, or more likely, the odds catch up to you and you are the target of a killing. Miller promises Anna that once she completes a vital job, she can retire to wherever she may want to go. Whether Anna believes this is hard to determine.

There are a couple of ludicrous shootout/hand-to-hand combat scenes in which Anna, outnumbered at least 20 to 1, seems to be the only person who can fire a weapon accurately or deliver the knockout blow. They are well choreographed and fun to view.

The crux of the movie is whether or not Anna can manipulate things and outsmart the intellignce agencies of two superpowers. A tall order.

Luss, in addition to the physical demands of the role, does a credible job of bringing humanity into the part. Mirren is a blast as the stern, uncompromising Olga, loyal to her job and expecting no less of those working for her. Evans and Murphy do OK with their parts although they obviously are backgrounds to the leading ladies.

 "ANNA" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/WgWsV9a3ENA

"ROCKETMAN"

Fans of Elton John -- and there have to be many, as his career transcended more than one generation of rock fans -- should get a kick out of "Rocketman." With solid backing by Elton John himself as a producer, "Rocketman" is not a straight movie bio a la "Bohemian Rhapsody," but presented as a musical fantasy. In essence, it hits the key moments in John's life, with his music as the theme, leading to some great dance and singing scenes, and despite the inevitable down times in the man's life, still ends up a bouncy tribute to a great artist.

Taron Egerton is wonderful as Elton John -- and there should be nods to Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor for their portrayals as the younger Elton John -- singing all the songs himself and laying bare the soul of the man whose creative gifts helped him cope from a life of issues -- an emotionally vacant father, preoccupied mother, dealing with his sexuality as well as his substance abuse problems.

Jamie Bell, who made a splash nearly 20 years ago as the boy who loves to dance in "Billy Elliott," does superb work as Bernie Taupin, the writer who put words to Elton John's music. As Taupin, Bell offers a man who never gave up on his friend and writing partner despite the demons haunting the musician. Bryce Dallas Howard is nearly unrecognizable as Elton's plump mother, Sheila, who while not exactly mom of the year, was perceptive enough to realize her son was gay and offers a somber forecast of his life: it would be almost impossible for Elton to find true love. Happily, that dire prediction proved false.

"Rocketman" is lively and colorful and worthy of a look.

 "ROCKETMAN" Official Trailer:  ttps://youtu.be/S3vO8E2e6G0

"SHAFT"

Another good summer popcorn movie, "Shaft" is at its best when Samuel L. Jackson is on screen as John Shaft, the second of three generations of Shafts in this movie. Jessie T. Usher plays JJ Shaft, John's estranged son, now a programmer for the FBI, as they reunite to bring down a longtime crime hood in New York. It is a nice generation-gap story of a Gen Xer and the technology he uses vs. the street smarts of a man who's been out there battling thugs for a couple of decades. Then things get even more fun when the man they call a "bad mother.... (shut yer mouth)" himself, Richard Roundtree as the original John Shaft, joins the party.

Aside from fighting crime, John and JJ need to mend the fences in their relationship as John tries to convince JJ that he got out of JJ's life (aside from sending some interesting Christmas gifts)in order to insure his son was isolated from the perilous life John was living.

Regina Hall matches Jackson in scene stealing as Maya, John's ex-wife and JJ's mother, who despite her inner denials, still burns a candle for John.

Directed by Tim Story (the "Ride Along" movies) and with a group of screenwriters, "Shaft" is just great fun, a typical action-comedy, and yet another watchable turn by Jackson, being both a father and a son.

 "SHAFT" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/lD41XdWcmbY

"THE DEAD DON'T DIE"

"Shaun of the Dead" is probably the undisputed champion of the zombie-comedy sub genre of horror, but that does not mean there cannot be other night of the living dead flicks that offer a chuckle or two among the gore.

Jim Jarmusch is not a director that can be lumped in with other smash-hit directors like Steven Spielberg or Joss Whedon. His movies ("Ghost Dog," "Broken Flowers") are the type that are booked into Laemmle or other art house theaters. His work, while quirky, also challenges the attention span. In his "The Dead Don't Die" he explores a zombie apocalypse as it effects the small town of Centerville. Unlike other suggested reasons for people popping out of their graves (radiation or a disease), Jarmusch presents yet another trigger for the rising of the walking dead.

The movie centers around the tiny police force of the city, which consists of the chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) as they deal with some strange but not yet alarming things like pets disappearing and the sun not setting til way late. Of couse things soon escalate quickly.

Murray and Driver and wonderful together, offering Cliff as a mentor who is sometimes baffled by his pupil's often puzzling takes on life and Driver as the seemingly goofy but oddly perceptive underling. Murray, well known for over-the-top performances, goes into the arthouse mode he employed when he worked with Jarmusch in "Broken Flowers" as well as his Oscar-nominated role in "Lost in Translation." He is subdued, a man who should be retired but then what? as well as bored into indifference by the mundane aspects of his job. Driver is the realist in the group. He unapologetically expresses his belief this is a zombie invasion even before they encounter any ghouls -- just the ghastly aftermath of their feedings. Sevigny unfortunately has little spotlight in this until her meltdown late in the movie.

There is a rich roster of secondary characters, notably Tilda Swinton as the new mortician, supposedly from Scotland but who practices East Asian traditions and does not stroll, but marches everywhere she goes. Tom Waits, grubby and bearded, is Hermit Bob, who views the chaos from the camouflage of the nearby forest and presents a kind of social commentary on the action.

Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, indy horror movie icon Larry Fassenden, RZA, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez and Iggy Pop make appearances as observers, victims and ghouls.

"The Dead Don't Die" offers inside jokes as well as pokes fun at itself. It is not of the caliber of "Shaun" but it is a mix of lighthearted and dark humor as well as gruesome visuals.

 "THE DEAD DON'T DIE" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/bs5ZOcU6Bnw

 

"THE PERFECTION" (on Netflix)

Don't be fooled by the arthouse vibe that permeates the opening moments of "The Perfection," now streaming on Netflix. Soon enough it evolves into a holy cow creepy flick.

Directed by Richard Shephed and co-written by him with Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, "The Perfection" centers on the world of classical music, specifically celloists. Allison Williams ("Get Out") is Charlotte, a young woman who in her teens had to abandoned a promising career as a cellist so she could care for her terminally ill mother.

Upon the her mother's death, Charlotte is ready to resume her life. She reconnects with her instructor Anton (Steven Weber), who drafts her to serve as a co-judge for a contest in Shanghai. She is introduced to the other judge, Lizzie (Logan Browning), Anton's current top cellist talent.

While one may anticipate that these two young ladies might become competitive adversaries, they instead hit it off and become close friends. This is just the first time Shepherd and his co-writers veer us away from the expected.

The sublime tone of the movie is shattered when Charlotte and Lizzie decide to take a road trip to the China countryside. Lizzie is a bit under the weather but gamely opts to soldier on. They board a rickety bus, and soon things go into a WHOA! mode as Lizzie grows sicker. This all ends in a horrifying way.

It's best not to reveal any more of the plot. Shepherd literally puts scenes in reverse and replays them in a different context to inform the viewer that what they saw earlier did not present the whole story. Then it all leads to an astonishing finish that is perversly satisfying as well as disturbing.

Both the young actresses in "The Perfection" earn kudos for performances that present their characters in different lights. The way they are perceived changes as the scenes are revisited and laced with additional information. Its twists are never telegraphed, resulting in a stunning final moments of OMG!

"THE PERFECTION" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/q57D6kF5B1k

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