Here are the latest film reviews by Damon Smith...

ANNABELLE COMES HOME (15)
Two stars

The Conjuring horror franchise expands at a furious pace with a seventh instalment in quick succession, embellishing the mythology of a creepy doll, which is a conduit for tormented souls.

The first Annabelle standalone feature, released in 2014, was a disappointing slice of supernatural horror hokum, which plundered Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen for scares. A 2017 prequel, Annabelle: Creation, was a marked improvement, tracing the plaything’s hellish origins back to a freak car accident in 1943.

This new chapter slingshots forward in time to the late 1960s, dovetailing neatly with the prelude to the original Conjuring, which introduced audiences to a wooden moppet with a hand-painted rictus grin.

Writer-director Gary Dauberman’s script is a potpourri of haunted house cliches, which lightly jangle nerves but are simply too familiar to have us jumping out of our seats in genuine fear.

He forcibly separates three central characters and a token male love interest so they can be subjected to different manifestations of evil (spooky spectres, swirling fog, grasping hands, possessed inanimate objects) before a climactic demonstration of unified force to vanquish the darkness for good. Or at least until The Conjuring 3 casts a shadow over the 2020 summer box office season.

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) take possession of a creepy doll, which has exerted a malevolent grip on the home of two nurses. The Warrens witness the figurine’s insidious threat during a night-time drive home.

“It’s a beacon for other spirits,” intuits Lorraine, who places Annabelle inside a special glass case in the couple’s room of artefacts, which is regularly blessed by local priest Father Gordon (Steve Coulter).

One year later, Ed and Lorraine are called away on business and they leave their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).

The girls bake a cake to celebrate Judy’s birthday. Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), who is desperate to channel spirits and contact her late father (Anthony Wemyss), gatecrashes the celebration and secretly attempts to gain access to the room where Annabelle is stored.

“It’s not really good for anyone to go in there,” warns Judy.

Alas, Daniela ignores these sage words and unknowingly leaves Annabelle’s glass case ajar. The three girls and Mary Ellen’s crush Bob (Michael Cimino) become targets for the doll’s diabolical meddling.

Annabelle Comes Home is a curiously old-fashioned story of things that go bump in the night, tapping into universal fears of monsters that lurk in the shadows or under the bed. Thirteen-year-old Grace invests her bullied heroine with a winning combination of pluck and self-doubt, blossoming into a chip off the old psychic block as director Dauberman puts characters through the emotional wringer.

They emerge battered and bruised. For us, it’s a far less unsettling experience.

STUBER (15)
Two stars

In 2017, Kumail Nanjiani played an Uber driver in Chicago chasing dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian in the uproarious romance, The Big Sick. Two years later, Nanjiani slips behind the wheel of a “silent but deadly” electric car to play an Uber driver in Los Angeles chasing dreams of romantic bliss with his best friend in the hare-brained action comedy Stuber. It’s safe to say Michael Dowse’s caper won’t be wooing Academy Award voters in any category.

A mismatched buddy cop movie in the same vein as Beverly Hills Cop or Midnight Run, Stuber runs dry of imagination and creativity well before the title character’s vehicle issues warnings about a flat battery.

Scriptwriter Tripper Clancy neglects to fill the film’s tank with snappy one-liners, relying on an increasingly shrill Nanjiani to spew leaden dialogue in misfiring scenes of verbal to-and-fro with Guardians Of The Galaxy hunk Dave Bautista.

Dowse choreographs fight sequences to a retro soundtrack including a shoot-out in a veterinary practice to The Air That I Breathe by The Hollies for no obvious creative reason or dramatic pay-off.

Chatterbox nice guy Stu (Nanjiani) juggles full-time work at Outside The Box Sporting Goods, where he is belittled by an oafish boss (Jimmy Tatro), with weekend and late-night shifts as an Uber driver.

He is stretching himself financially to invest in a women-only spin class run by his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin), who he secretly loves. Stu accepts a fare from a passenger called Vic Manning (Bautista), who turns out to be a muscle-bound detective with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Vic has just undergone laser eye surgery and needs Stu to ferry him around the city to capture sadistic drug dealer Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais). Unperturbed, Vic kidnaps Stu and forces the mild-mannered loner to become his private chauffeur, zigzagging around the city’s criminal underbelly in search of Tedjo’s latest consignment of heroin.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE (15)
Three stars

The living are mean-spirited, spiteful and lonely, and might as well be dead, in writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s off-kilter comedy, which commits half-heartedly to the gore-slathered demands of a zombie horror.

Set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Centerville – population 738, “A real nice place” – The Dead Don’t Die sinks its gnashers into myriad genres but seldom draws blood as an inconsistent tone ricochets between sinister, self-referential and silly.

There are a few nice touches like when Tilda Swinton’s bonkers mortician spots a metallic Star Destroyer on the keychain of Adam Driver’s cop and deadpans, “Star Wars – excellent fiction” (Driver plays the villainous Kylo Ren in a galaxy far, far away). However, Jarmusch’s decision to allow characters to break the fourth wall and pointedly identify themselves as actors in a ghoulish fiction undermines any efforts to make us care about the starry cast being disembowelled and dismembered by the undead.

ARMSTRONG (PG)
Three stars

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, David Fairhead directs a revealing documentary portrait of Neil Armstrong, which traces the reluctant hero’s journey from rural Ohio to uncharted territory in the inky void of space. Narrated by Harrison Ford, the film combines remastered archive material, Nasa footage and previously unseen Armstrong family home movies.

Fairhead’s film is available to download and stream from tomorrow.