Annabelle Comes Home


Chucky has got NOTHING on Annabelle!

(2019) Horror (New LineMcKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino, Samara Lee, Kenzie Caplan, Sade Katarina, Michael Patrick McGill, Brittany Hoza, Sheila McKellan, Eddie J. Fernandez, Steve Coulter, Luca Luhan, Gary-7, Paul Dean, Alison White, Oliver Dauberman, Lou Lou Safran, Anthony Wernyss, Natalia Safran. Directed by Gary Dauberman

Not every doll is a toy. Some dolls are heirlooms; others are meant for adult collectors. Then, there are a very few who are cursed or possessed by murderous spirits. There is one, however, who acts as a magnet for malevolent spirit.

Demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) have a roomful of cursed and possessed items they keep in a locked room. Of these, the most dangerous is Annabelle, a doll that serves as the aforementioned magnet. When she is not locked in a glass case that has been blessed by a priest, she can cause all kinds of mischief

When Ed and Lorraine have to leave on a job, they leave their young daughter Judy (Grace) under the care of sweet babysitter Mary Ellen (Iseman) whose friend Daniela (Sarife) is a bit less well-behaved. She manages to get herself into that forbidden room and in doing so unleashes hell. Suddenly the three girls are beset by all manner of malevolent entities. Surviving the night may well be impossible.

The seventh entry in the Conjuring shared movie universe is one of the strongest to date. Novice director Dauberman resists the temptation to rely on jump scares (although there are a few) and instead comes by his frights honestly. While at times, the movie does seem like a vehicle to establish future spin-offs for the franchise (I’m betting on a Ferryman and a Haunted bride film at the very least), the movie is powered largely by some strong performances by Grace, Iseman and Sarife – all of whom are given character depth and pluck. Dauberman also really sets the film in the 70s nicely; the fashions might make you cringe a little bit. Still, this is all very good fun and the kind of roller coaster ride I love in a horror movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very effective scares. The three female leads all do solid jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels at times like they’re just creating future spin-offs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Lorraine Warren passed away two months before the film was released. The closing credits include a dedication to her.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nun
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parasite

Tag


Jeremy Renner knows he’s better than you.

(2018) Comedy (New LineEd Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Isla fisher, Lil Rel Howley, Hannibal Burress, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Nora Dunn, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Steve Berg, Indiana Sifuentes, Trayce Malachi, Jock McKissic, Thomas Middleditch, Al Mitchell, Sebastian Maniscalco, Vince Pisani, Kurt Yue, Kate Kneeland.  Directed by Jeff Tomsic

 

There’s a line in the movie that really rings true; “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.” Keeping that child-like part of ourselves alive means we’re ever changing, ever growing. Play can be a part of that; it teaches us about ourselves, if nothing else.

Hoagie (Helms), Jerry (Renner), Bob (Hamm), Chili (Johnson) and Sable (Burress) have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years. They’ve grown up a little bit since then; they’ve relocated all over the country from their native Spokane and have gone on to their own lives and their own families. But for one month every year – May, as it turns out – they are fair game to a no-holds-barred take-no-prisoners form of the children’s game.

It has helped keep their bonds strong even though they lead separate lives but for four of them, there’s a unifying factor – Jerry has never ever been tagged “it,” not even once, in thirty years. This will be the year, even though financier Bob has a reporter (Wallis) trailing him, even though Hoagie’s wife (Fisher) is about to lose her mind with competitive fire and even though Chili will be back in the territory where his ex-wife (Jones) dwells. For this will be the last year; Jerry is taking himself a bride (Bibb) and this will be his last year playing the game.

The filmmakers could have gone a few different routes with this and they elected to try and go down two different paths at once; the raunchy one and the heartwarming one. As fellow critic Roger Moore observed, they may have missed an opportunity by going the PG-13 route and thus attracting a larger audience pool but as it was, they didn’t do so badly.

The raunchy stuff isn’t as raunchy as other comedies that go there but it is enough to warn home viewers from letting their tweens and youngsters get hold of it. The element that gives the viewer some good warm fuzzies is well-earned without being too treacly, although there is a bit of a twist that was a little over-the-top.

As far as the comedy bits (mostly having to do with the lengths the players will go to tag Jerry and the lengths he’ll go to keep from getting tagged) while they were generally well-executed, some bent the boundaries of suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. That aside, this was a little bit better than I expected it to be although not quite as good as Game Night.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally heart-warming comedy about the bonds of friendship.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the comedy is a bit far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief nudity, some crude sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is loosely based on an ongoing game of tag played by four friends in Spokane, Washington.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover Part II
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel

The Nun (2018)


When staying in a haunted abbey it is advisable to frequently check and see what’s behind you.

(2018) Horror (New Line) Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Ingrid Bisu, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles, August Maturo, Jack Falk, Lynnette Gaza, Ani Sava, Michael Smiley, Gabrielle Downey, David Horovitch, Tudor Munteanu, Lili Bordán, Scarlett Hicks, Izzie Coffey, Jared Morgan, Laur Dragan, Eugeniu Cozma, Manuela Clucur, Beatrice Peter, Ana Udrolu. Directed by Corin Hardy

This is the fifth film in the Conjuring universe to date. In it we explore the origins of the demonic nun first seen in The Conjuring 2. Is her story worth exploring further?

At a remote Romanian abbey a young nun is found hanging from the front facade by local villager and supplier Frenchie (Bloquet). Word gets back to the Vatican where Father Burke (Bichir) is assigned to investigate with novitiate Sister Irene (Farmiga) sent to accompany him. Father Burke has a bit of a past; during an exorcism that he performed a child (Maturo/Falk) died and he has been haunted by the memory ever since.

When they get to the village near the Abbey where Frenchie lives, they discover that the villagers have a healthy fear of the Abbey which is rumored to contain a terrible evil. Frenchie takes the to the abbey where the Mother Superior (Gaza) informs them that the nuns are in the midst of their vow of silence for the night and they can’t be interviewed until the following day. The two clerics will have to stay the night.

Of course during the night both of them are beset by nightmarish visions and Frenchie has issues of his own getting back home. The next day Sister Irene talks to some cooperative nuns but discovers that they have been tasked to hold back the evil entity dwelling below the abbey with the power of constant prayer and Father Burke has a close encounter with Daniel and being buried alive. There is most definitely an evil presence at the Abbey – and it will be up to Father Burke, Sister Irene and Frenchie to vanquish it before it escapes to cause all sorts of havoc in the rest of the world.

Hardy uses his Romanian locations to their full potential. Rarely have I seen a horror movie that exudes such palpable menace. You’re on edge from the moment that we arrive in Romania which is what you want from a horror movie. Unfortunately, you want a bit more as well and the promise of the genuinely creepy castle where this was filmed isn’t taken advantage of.

Hardy relies far too much on jump scares which, to be fair, is a trademark of the franchise overall but the effectiveness of those scares is diluted the more that they are used. While the make-up for the demonic nun is genuinely impressive, for the most part she just leaps out of the shadows with an accompanying WHOOM! on the soundtrack. In that sense what could have been a great character is reduced to a Halloween novelty device that you find in neighborhood homes that like to decorate for the holiday.

Thankfully, Farmiga, Bloquet and particularly Bichir didn’t get the memo that the movie wasn’t up to par with the other films. They all turn in solid performances with Bichir once again proving that he is perhaps the most underutilized actor in Hollywood. It makes me wonder if he wasn’t Hispanic he would be getting more high-profile roles. As it is he makes the most out of the roles he does get and he is nearly as memorable as the background here.

This ends up being a bit of a disappointment. Demonic nuns are always an extremely scary creature and there has yet to be a movie that I’ve seen that really makes full use of them, although I’m sure there are some out there that must. The franchise has been to this point pretty impressive in terms of the quality of the individual films but it has been slipping as of late. There are at least three new movies in the Conjuring universe in the pipeline and hopefully they will turn the quality factor around but if they continue to be as mediocre as this perhaps it just might be time to give the franchise a rest.

REASONS TO GO: The Romanian locations are truly creepy. Bichir is outstanding while Bloquet and Farmiga both give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many jump scares. The horror intensity is lacking from the other films in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and disturbing images, violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taissa Farmiga who plays Sister Irene is the younger sister of Vera, who plays Lorraine Warren in the original The Conjuring. It is not known whether the two characters are related.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Church
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Weed the People

Game Night


Some games are riskier than others.

(2018) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemmons, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Zerrick Deion Williams, Joshua Mikel, R.F. Daley, John Francis Daley, Michael Cyril Creighton, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Jonathan Goldstein, Charlotte Hazzard. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

 

Everyone knows someone whose competitive urges are on a scale of one to ten about a 35. Max (Bateman) and his wife Annie (McAdams) are just like that. They host a regular game night at their home in which friends are invited (or in the case of creepy cop Gary (Plemmons), not) to play a variety of party games. When Max’s mega-successful big brother Brooks (Chandler), a venture capitalist who Max has competed with unsuccessfully comes to town, Max is put off his game a little bit. When Brooks offers to host game night at his lavish home, Max is further intimidated.

Brooks dispenses with the traditional board games and instead does a kidnap mystery event, offering his cherry red Stingray (Max’s dream car as it turns out) as a prize for the first to solve the mystery, Max looks at it as an opportunity to finally get redemption with his brother. But when it turns out that the kidnapping is real and so are the guns, things take a turn for the wacky.

I honestly didn’t expect too much from the movie going in. I thought it would be another mildly funny and occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy that seem to dominate the comedy landscape these days but I was pleasantly surprised. This is one of the funniest movies of the year, hands down. Not only is the script funny but it’s generous – nearly everyone in the ensemble cast has their moment to deliver an amazing punch line or even a moment of sublime physical comedy. Bateman shines the brightest, still as likable as ever.

If the movie has a drawback it’s that it sometimes overthinks things. The story works best when things are kept simple. This is a rare film that is funny without being gimmicky, allowing the characters to develop nicely without being overly silly. Da Queen liked it even more than I did, which is saying something. If you’re looking for a movie that is bound to make you laugh, this is the one to select, at least as far as 2018 is concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is unexpectedly funny in places. Bateman remains one of the most charming actors in Hollywood.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally gets over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some sexual references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bateman and McAdams previously appeared together in State of Play.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tag
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

It (2017)


A young boy is about to float forever.

(2017) Horror (New Line) Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders. Directed by Andy Muschietti

Childhood can be a rough time, particularly that transitional time moving from childhood into the teenage years. As we go through that transition there are no instruction manuals, no online courses; we simply have to feel our way through. Of course, this transition is made all the more difficult when you and your friends are being stalked by a malevolent clown.

One rainy afternoon Georgie Denbrough (Scott) is playing with a toy boat his big brother Bill (Lieberher) made for him in the rain gutters near his home in Derry, Maine. Georgie idolizes his big brother and Bill loves his kid brother fiercely; unfortunately, Bill has a bad cold and can’t watch over his kid brother who loses his boat in a fast current that takes it down a storm drain. There dwells Pennywise (Skarsgård) the clown and there Georgie will meet a grisly end – but his body will never be found..

It’s summer and things are the same and different around Derry. Kids, like Georgie, are disappearing and while it is noticed, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of urgency. That’s mainly because the adults in town are monsters just a shade below the level of Pennywise; Bill’s stutter has become even worse since Georgie disappeared and his father (Pounsett) Bill is pretty sure doesn’t think he can do anything right. Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac thanks to his hand-wringing overprotective mom.

Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is queasy at the thought of killing the lambs his father provides to local grocery stores and butchers and Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is as annoying as they come and swears like a sailor. Stanley Uris (Oleff) is terrified he’ll mess up at his upcoming bar mitzvah under the stern gaze of his rabbi father but worst of all is Beverly Marsh (Lillis) whose dad (Bogaert) is sexually abusing her. It’s really tough to be a kid in Derry.

But Bill has figured out that Pennywise, with his signature red balloons, is the culprit behind the disappearances, especially after new kid Ben Hanscom (Taylor) looks into the history of Derry and discovers that every 27 years there is a rash of kid disappearances – and it happens to be 27 years since the last group. And clearly visible in some antique photos of Derry – Pennywise the Clown.

They’ve tracked the clown to an abandoned house on the site of an old well which leads into the tunnels and sewers of Derry which is the domain of Pennywise now. There they will find out the fate of the missing children – and confront the demonic clown on his own tuff.

As everyone knows, this is one of Stephen King’s iconic novels. It was made into a miniseries back in 1990 with Tim Curry famously in the role of Pennywise. That’s about when the current It is set – an update of about 20 years. Appropriately enough, it has been 27 years since the miniseries – the exact number of years between kid killings in the book and in the miniseries and now in the movie. Make of that what you will (I make of it coincidence but a terrific marketing opportunity).

There is a bit of a Stranger Things vibe here and it’s not just because Wolfhard, an integral part of the acclaimed Netflix series cast, is also in this one. The camaraderie between the kids is genuine and unforced and while it is set basically in the same era as Stranger Things there are some critical differences – It isn’t as wedded to its time frame as the TV show is and in some ways that’s a very good thing.

In fact, the ensemble cast does a bang-up job and in particular Lieberher and Lillis show the most promise and give the most satisfying performances while Wolfhard is a natural as the wise guy Richie Tozier – a part not unlike the one he plays in Stranger Things but enough of the comparisons. These are definitely two very different animals.

Pennywise is something of an iconic villain, the killer clown to end all killer clowns. Curry made the part his own back in 1990 and his performance is still one of the great monster portrayals in the history of the genre. Skarsgård is inevitably going to be compared to that performance and quite frankly, while he’s a very good actor in is own right he just doesn’t have a chance between the passage of time that makes memory fonder and the fact that Curry is so universally adored. That’s not that Skarsgård doesn’t do a great job – he does – but he simply can’t compete and he is kind of forced to by circumstance.

The special effects are for the most part special indeed and while the scares aren’t many they are entirely effective when they do come. There is a reason why this movie has been so successful at the box office and one viewing of it will tell you what that is. It isn’t the best horror movie of the year – it isn’t even the best Stephen King adaptation of the year – but it’s a very good movie that should get your Halloween scare needs easily met.

REASONS TO GO: The young cast does an exceptional job as an ensemble. The special effects are quite impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Although Skarsgård does a pretty decent job, he’s still no Tim Curry.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect there is a good deal of violence and horrific images, gore and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the biggest opening weekend gross of any horror film ever; went on to become the all-time highest-grossing horror film ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clowntown
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin