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Schultz reviews: “Breakthrough," "The Curse of La Llorona," "Mia and the White Lion" and "Penguins"

Schultz reviews: “Breakthrough," "The Curse of La Llorona," "Mia and the White Lion" and "Penguins"

Carl Schultz


“Breakthrough” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox and Fox 2000, 116 Minutes, Rated PG, Released April 17:


Adapted from the 2017 nonfiction novel “The Impossible” and based on an actual incident, which occurred in January 2015, “Breakthrough” tells the story of John Smith, a 14-year-old St. Charles, Missouri boy who was playing with friends on the frozen surface of nearby Lake Sainte Louise when the ice broke, plunging the boys underwater. While his friends were quickly rescued, young John became trapped, and soon sank to the bottom.


After some 15 minutes submerged in the icy waters, the teen was finally pulled from the lake by first responders and taken to a nearby hospital, where ER physicians unsuccessfully administered CPR for some 43 minutes. The doctors were about to deliver the tragic news of the boy’s death to the family when his mother arrived at the hospital and entered the room. 


At that point, in the deliberately laconic phrasing of the church pastor played in the film by actor Topher Grace, “Patient died, mother prayed, patient came back to life.”


As adapted to the screen by writer Grant Nieporte and directed by television actress Roxann Dawson in her big screen filmmaking debut, “Breakthrough” creates a compelling backstory in which the central dramatic conflict becomes not between the the boy’s mother and the physicians treating him or between the boy and God, but between the mother and the new pastor of the church the family attends.


Played by actress Chrissy Metz, best known for her her role as Kate Pearson in the popular television series “This Is Us,” Joyce Smith is a longtime member of the local First Assembly Church who bumps heads with the church’s new pastor, John Noble, over the church’s evangelical direction and practices. Their relationship is strained and deliberately remote.


But after learning of her son’s accident, Pastor Noble is among the first to arrive at the hospital to offer support and encouragement to the family. The pastor quickly makes it clear that, enemy or friend, he’s there to stay for as long as necessary ... no matter the outcome. 


In a way, the relationship between Smith and Noble is vaguely reminiscent of the conflict between Taraji P. Henson’s Ann Atwater and Sam Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis in the recent “The Best of Enemies” — ideological enemies who through conflict and adversity find the strength to move forward together.


Chrissy Metz makes a persuasive transition to the big screen with her appearance as the real-life Smith. Fiercely devoted to her faith, Metz’ Smith is also almost obsessive in her duties as a mother, a helicopter parent acknowledging a past in which she wasn’t committed to the sanctity of life and the concept of family. The versatile Metz also performs the Diane Warren ballad “I’m Standing With You” over the film’s closing credits. 


As Pastor John Noble, Topher Grace creates another impressive characterization in his career as one of the most busy and eclectic actors in motion pictures. Addled and awkward, frequently distracted, mixing metaphors and misquoting slang in an effort to reach out to the church’s youth, Grace’s Pastor Noble is eccentrically endearing but exasperating in his sureness, unwavering in his faith, resolute in his commitment to his congregation.


It’s probably impossible to separate “Breakthrough” from either its roots in evangelical cinema or the other pictures in a rapidly growing genre which now includes such hits as 2014’s “Heaven Is For Real,” 2015’s “War Room,” the “God’s Not Dead” pictures, 2016’s “Miracles From Heaven” and 2017’s “The Shack.” No explanation other than but faith is ever considered for John Smith’s miraculous healing, or even proposed. According to the film, none is necessary.


Some viewers might grouch that the conflict in “Breakthrough” between parent and the pastor seems fundamentally trivial and dramatically shaky. But such are the crises that populate ordinary lives, rather than Thanos mortality snaps, warp engines or emotionally conflicted superheroes. Critics additionally might quarrel about the the viability of “Breakthrough,” and argue that the child’s rapid recovery from his injuries had countless explanations independent of faith.


But the philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor states that simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than more complex ones. Religion doesn’t need to be true to have truth in it. Even scientists and skeptics acknowledge that prayer contains therapeutic values difficult to explain beyond face value. And no family who’s ever been on the receiving end of a miracle is likely to forget the details ... or doubt the source.


“Breakthrough” is frequently unsophisticated, unpolished, and more than a little rough around the edges. The picture goes on for at least 10 minutes too long, and contains two dramatic resolutions too many. Director Dawson additionally has an infuriating habit of keeping the audience in suspense unnecessarily, panning her camera slowly to reveal information which should be delivered to viewers as it occurs.


Still, with source material this good and a subject this compelling, it’s tough to go too far astray.


Released to 2,824 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Breakthrough” has earned some $14.6 million, enough to score the number three spot on the week’s Box Office Mojo Top Ten. The movie is also scoring strongly with the critics, earning an approval rating of 64% from Rotten Tomatoes and 47% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by Cinemascore award “Breakthrough” an average grade of A.


“Breakthrough” is rated PG for thematic content, including peril.


“The Curse of La Llorona” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 93 Minutes, Rated R, Released April 19:


Plot holes, inconsistencies, and continuity errors abound in the new “The Curse of La Llarona,” a mishmash of elements from both “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist” that’s so riddled with cliches that by the final third the picture almost but not quite becomes a comedic satire rather than a viable entry in the horror genre.


Technically the sixth movie in the series which in 2013 with “The Conjuring,” the picture’s plot concerns the legend of La Llorona, “the weeping woman.” According to Mexican folklore, La Llorona in 1673 drowned her two young children in retribution for her husband’s repeated infidelities. And for the past 300 years, her ghost now wanders the land kidnapping young children, spiriting them away and eventually drowning them.


In “The Curse of La Llorona,” the ghost of La Llorona inexplicably travels to 1973 Los Angeles, where it begins to haunt the family of a recently widowed social worker. Still grieving the loss of her husband and overwhelmed by her professional caseload, the additional distraction of a ghost stalking her young son and daughter is overwhelming. For relief, the woman turns to a defrocked priest who now toils as a sort of footloose freelance exorcist.


Insipid, patronizing and moronic from the word go, “The Curse of La Llorona” expects the viewer to accept a trained child care agent failing to recognize third degree burns on the arms of both her children. And when they’re finally pointed out, the kids’ explanation (”I fell”) fails to set off a cacophony of warning gongs. The “oh, come on” factor is high indeed in this picture.


Written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, also the authors of the recent teen romance “Five Feet Apart,” and directed by rookie Michael Chaves, “The Curse of La Llorona” stars Linda Cardellini as the hapless social worker and Raymond Cruz as the free lance exorcist who seems to improvise his rituals and techniques as he goes along. Mom should’ve just called the Ghostbusters. 


Tony Amendola briefly reprises his Father Perez role from 2014’s “Annabelle” to reminisce wistfully about the events of that picture, setting up a cameo appearance by the haunted Annabelle doll herself. Fans of higher-quality horror pictures might also recognize in a key supporting role actress Patricia Velasquez, who played the stunning Anck-Su-Namun in 1999’s megahit “The Mummy” and its 2001 sequel.


Now playing in 3,372 theaters across the United States and Canada, “The Curse of La Llorona” was expected by distributor Warner Bros. Pictures to add some $17 million to its coffers by the end of its opening weekend despite discouraging reviews. The picture actually ended the weekend with a whopping $26.5 million in earnings, easily taking the number one spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.


“The Curse of La Llorona” is rated R for violence and terror.


“Mia and the White Lion” Distributed by Ledafilms Entertainment Group, 98 Minutes, Rated PG, Released April 12:


Families experiencing friction between parents and teenage children are encouraged to take a look at the new picture “Mia and the White Lion,” a new picture from the Europe-based Ledafilms Entertainment Group now playing in select movie theaters.  


Part drama and part wildlife documentary, reminiscent of 1966’s “Born Free,” “Mia and the White Lion” tells the story of a young girl who begins growing through her formative teenage years under unusual circumstances.


Eleven-year-old Mia Owens’ world is turned upside-down when her parents inherit a small wildlife preserve in South Africa, uproot the family from their home in cosmopolitan London, and relocate to the wilderness of Africa to take charge of the decaying family business.


Working in harmony with nature, living off the land, protecting animals, hosting informational safaris, and enhancing ecological studies by qualified wildlife experts, the sudden culture shock is almost more than young Mia is able to endure. But the young girl’s bumpy transition is softened somewhat when one of the preserve’s lionesses gives birth to a white-haired cub. Naming the cub Charlie, young Mia quickly adopts the kitten-like baby lion as a pet. 


Despite repeated warnings from her parents and the wildlife experts at the game preserve that her beloved new pet will eventually mature and embrace his primal carnivorous instincts, Mia and Charlie become inseparable, developing an symbiotic bond in which both adopt certain of each others’ behavioral characteristics, helping each through life’s uncertainties.


With no computer enhancement or digital manipulation of the picture’s images, “Mia and the White Lion” contains the same sense of nervous apprehension as an especially harrowing lion-taming act in a traveling circus. Not a single frame of the 98-minute picture is the result of trick photography. And that same sense of persuasiveness gives the picture an added impact at about the halfway point, when young Mia inadvertently makes a startling discovery.


Overhearing a conversation between her father and a neighbor, Mia learns that as a means of augmenting needed financial capital, the family farm actually operates in tandem with a nearby mercenary facility supplying surplus animals as safari targets for rich poachers. Worse, concerned about Mia’s friendship with a maturing lion, her father has placed Charlie on the firing line of the gaming facility. 


Disillusioned, betrayed, Mia feels in her loyalty to Charlie a need to escape — to defy her father’s orders, spirit the endangered animal away from the preserve, and set off on a harrowing journey across the South African savanna to the Timbavati Game Reserve, where Charlie will be forever protected from poachers.


As Mia, actress Daniah De Villiers has a sort of scrubbed Jennifer Lawrence-like appeal and charisma which help her character remain sympathetic and likeable even during the character’s unsympathetic and unlikeable moments. During the picture’s opening scenes, young De Villiers has a unique ability to persuade the audience of her claustrophobia in the vast wilderness, and that she’s effectively drowning in loneliness at her new home in the middle of the African plains.


And the actress grows during the picture — literally: Gilles de Maistre, the French-born director of “Mia and the White Lion,” filmed this expansive production over the course of three years so the picture’s younger actors could mature onscreen and develop real, tangible relationships … not only with each other, but also with the lions and other animals which appear in the film.


And the three-year experiment works well, cinematically. Pictures like “Mia and the White Lion” were formerly the exclusive domain of the Walt Disney organization. And that’s what this motion picture sometimes resembles — a sort of “The Incredible Journey” with teeth ... as well as vice-like jaws and sharp claws. 


Unfortunately, when the film’s main character levels a rifle at her father and fires a tranquilizer dart into his thigh as a means of rebellion, or foolishly leads her fully-grown pet lion on a stroll through a crowded shopping mall, the filmmaker destroys an illusion of credibility, and crosses a conceptual line where a happy ending is no longer among the picture’s possible conclusions.


Placed into limited release on April 12 at selected theaters across the United States, “Mia and the White Lion” is rated PG for thematic elements, peril, and some language concerns.


“Penguins” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 76 Minutes, Rated G, Released April 17:


Eye-popping photography highlights this serio-comic documentary following the annual springtime migration of Antarctica’s Adelie penguins. Focusing on Steve, a young adult member of the species participating in his first migration, “Penguins” illustrates the rituals of mating, breeding and protecting offspring from predators.


Alternately dramatic, harrowing and comedic, “Penguins” benefits from astonishing camera work in difficult locations, breathtaking scenery, and including in the narrative even the more distasteful elements of life in the wild. Unfortunately, the picture simultaneously loses points for intrusive sound effects, the inclusion of incongruous soft-rock hits on the soundtrack, and superimposing intrusive comedic dialogue over certain of the penguins’ antics.


Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, the filmmakers behind previous documentaries such as 2007’s “Earth,” 2012’s “Chimpanzee” and 2014’s “Bears,” “Penguins” is receiving encouraging reviews from the critics, including a 90% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and 69% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award “Penguins” a grade of A.


Narrated by comic actor Ed Helms and released to 1,815 theaters across North America, “Penguins” is rated G. The picture is also being exhibited in the IMAX format in selected locations.

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