Screening Room: Ghostbusters Afterlife, King Richard, Tick Tick Boom, Zeroes and Ones and More

Remember 1984? Be a Lot Zuuler If You Did

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

by George Wolf

Have you tried to branch out, only to end up with a revolt on your hands? Perhaps fan service is right for you! In other words, if 2016’s Ghostbusters was The Last Jedi, Afterlife is The Rise of Skywalker. With a side of Goonies.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a fun trip down memory lane.

Director/co-writer Jason Reitman picks up the 1984 baton from dad Ivan, crafting a new adventure that casually ignores the 1989 sequel.

Egon Spengler’s long-estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is being evicted from her Chicago apartment, so she takes daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace – just terrific in a completely heroic arc) and son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to the only thing Dad left her when he died: a dilapidated farmhouse in small-town Oklahoma.

Ah, but this farm holds secrets, and it isn’t long before science whiz Phoebe is getting familiar with proton packs and Trevor is checking to see if the ECTO-1’s engine might actually turn over.

Good timing, too, because Phoebe’s teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd) has been noticing some serious seismic activity in town that he cannot explain. Turns out the Sexiest Teacher Alive is also a big fan of the original Ghostbusters, and he clues in Phoebe and her conspiracy-happy friend “Podcast” (a charming Logan Kim) about Grandpa’s heroics back in the day.

Once Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor from Freaky) makes it a quartet, it’s up to the kids to figure out the real reason Egon abandoned the GB’s all those years ago, what’s brewing under the farmhouse, and just how to wrangle a stage 5 apparition.

This is a film so steeped in the nostalgia for its source material that you cannot imagine it existing on its own. Is that a direct result of the savagery that greeted the female (and for what it’s worth, underrated) reboot or a natural reaction by a son following in his father’s footsteps?

Either way, the benchmark callbacks come early and often, with Reitman frequently holding the shot an extra beat just to make sure you pick up what he left for you. And while the Bill Murray zany-ness is replaced by Paul Rudd sarcasm and wisecracking from a cast of wonderful young actors, there is humor here, enough to justify the “comedy” label (which honestly, the original trailer had me questioning).

But is it fun? Oh yeah, with some slick CGI and high points that are zuuler than the other side of the pillow.

You’ll want to stay through the credits for two extra scenes, but there’s a good chance you’ll still be thinking about all that Reitman has in store during that finale. It’s plenty – maybe even enough for your eyes to stay as pufty as a certain marshmallow man.

A Different Kind of Toy Story

Annabelle Comes Home

by Hope Madden

The first conflict, first specter of the Conjuring universe was a hideous, braid-wearing doll haunting hip Seventies roommates. Ever wonder what happened after Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, respectively) removed the cursed doll Annabelle from the girls’ apartment?

It was a hell of a ride home, I will tell you that.

Truth is, the Annabelle franchise within the larger Conjuring property hasn’t really impressed. John R. Leonetti’s lackluster 2014 “save the baby” horror that gave the doll its own series fell flat. Three years later, David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation offered an origin story that knew absolutely nothing at all about its own religious setting, yet offered considerably stronger action, scares and gore than its predecessor.

Writer Gary Dauberman, who’s penned every installment (as well as It, which seriously amplifies his credibility), takes on directing duties for the first time with the third film, Annabelle Comes Home.

Again, this one is a little better than the last one.

Dauberman gives us a spooky fun glimpse into the reasons the Warrens kept the doll locked away back in their room of cursed objects. From that first road trip home—which is a blast straight out of Hammer or Michael Jackson’s Thriller—the film is a spooky fun ode to old fashioned horror.

Back at home—the very home where the Warrens illogically keep demonic objects—their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, really good in this role) is going through some troubles with schoolmates who think her parents are creepy.

Duh.

So, creepy Ed and Lorraine leave town, likely to cast a demon into a Combat Carl they’ll be adding to the back room toybox, leaving little Judy with a cherubic babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and her snoopy bestie, Daniela (Katie Sarife).

What does Daniela touch in the off-limits, demon-filled back room?

“Everything.”

All hell breaks loose, naturally.

Dauberman shows some fun instincts when it comes to isolating characters to make the most of his thrill ride setting. The logic comes and goes with ease, however—once the catalyst kicks in, each scene exists simply to trigger a scare, not to make any narrative sense.

But it is fun, with generous writing that does not ask us to root against any of the kids, and performances that are far superior to the content. Plus a couple of real laughs, mostly thanks to a randomly hilarious pizza delivery guy.

Annabelle Comes Home is no masterpiece and it is definitely a tonal shift from the previous installments, but it’s a mindless PG-13 blast of haunted house summer fun.

Girl with All the Gifts

Gifted

by Hope Madden

A pensive charmer tries to raise a child prodigy on his own. Gifted offers a premise as rife with possibilities as it is weighed down by likely cliché and melodrama, and it strangely meanders somewhere between the two.

Chris Evans attempts the gruff everyman with some success, playing Uncle Frank, guardian to math genius Mary (Mckenna Grace – very solid). Against the advice of his landlord and Mary’s bestie Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary as a first grader in a local public school.

There Mary wows her good natured teacher (Jenny Slate), and draws the attention of her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who’s been MIA since Mary’s mother – another family genius – died when the girl was just a babe.

What’s the best way to care for a gifted child? This is the conundrum at the heart of the film. In rooting out the answer, writer Tom Flynn wisely keeps Mary at the center of the story. She’s an actual character, not a prop for evangelizing one course of action over another.

Luckily, Grace is up to the task, and her chemistry with Evans feels genuine enough to make you invest in their story.

Perhaps more important is Duncan, a formidable talent who elevates a tough role. She, too, shares a warm chemistry with Evans, and it’s that kind of unexpected character layering that helps Gifted transcend its overcooked family dramedy leanings.

On occasion, Gifted is Little Man Tate without the pathos. At other times, it’s Good Will Hunting for first graders.

Strong performances help the film navigate sentimental trappings, but Flynn’s script veers off in too many underdeveloped and downright needless directions, and director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) can’t find a tone.

Gifted is warm without being too sweet. Though it knows the answer to the question it’s asking, the film resists oversimplification and never stoops to pitting one-dimensional characters against each other in service of a sermon.

Though the final decision about what’s best for Mary is really never in doubt, in getting to that revelation, the film acknowledges nuance in the choice.

That’s not to say Gifted avoids cliché altogether, or that it embraces understatement. It does not – on either count. But it does present an intriguing dilemma, populates its story with thoughtful, almost realistic characters, and refuses to condescend to its audience or its characters.

Verdict-3-0-Stars