A review of “The Conjuring” (2013)

I feel the same way about “The Conjuring” (2013) as I did about its prequel, “Annabelle” (2014) — it has all the earmarks of a bad movie, but it inexplicably succeeds anyway.

Seriously — this film has clunky exposition, cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plot developments (toward the end), not to mention a plot setup that’s in questionable taste.  (The movie suggests that the innocents condemned by the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials were indeed witches.  This feels a bit awkward to anyone who read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school.)  “The Conjuring” also plays out like a love letter to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the controversial paranormal investigators who are largely the subject of the film (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).  This last offense is forgivable, I suppose — the film was made with the Warrens’ blessing, and Lorraine Warren was even present as a “consultant” during its production.

Strangely, however, these flaws were barely noticeable to me when I watched it.  I had a good time.  “The Conjuring” just happens to be a decent fright flick that delivers on the scares.

I think James Wan’s skilled directing has a lot to do with that; the film works visually.  (I could name specific instances where it works especially well, but I want to avoid spoilers.)

The acting helped a lot too — Wilson and Farmiga are both damned good, as is Lili Taylor as the afflicted family’s mother.  (I’ve admired Taylor’s acting since her long ago 1998 guest appearance on “The X-Files,” and she was equally good as a bad guy in 1996’s “Ransom.”)  Ron Livingston was also quite good in the role of the father — if you have trouble placing his face, as I did, he also played Captain Nixon in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” (2001).  He seems to have a talent for playing the likable everyman — he’s great here as the somewhat feckless father, and functions well as a kind of viewer surrogate.  I should also mention the young Joey King as one of the family’s daughters — she played the role of a terrified child to perfection, and really raised the stakes emotionally.

Despite really enjoying most of the movie, some of my enthusiasm for “The Conjuring” flagged a bit toward the end.  The denouement here includes an exorcism, and those are almost always boring.  There are only so many ways that scenario can play out, and we’ve seen them all — and I shouldn’t even need to name that certain 1973 film that did it best.  Furthermore, we see our story’s demon do some pretty extraordinary things, even by demon standards.  It can apparently transport itself great distances (using an inanimate object as a kind of fax machine?), and can manipulate both the laws of physics and the area’s wildlife.  It was all a little too much for my willing suspension of disbelief.

Again, though — this was a good movie.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good scare.

 

A few quick words on “24: Legacy” (2017)

I hate to say it, but “24: Legacy” (2017) was mostly average stuff; I’d give the 12-episode arc a 7 out of 10 for being a mildly engaging thriller, but nothing more than that.

I was one of the few people back in the day who opined that “24” could continue even without Kiefer Sutherland.  As priceless as he was in his role as anti-hero Jack Bauer, he wasn’t the only star of the show — the show’s gritty universe and its unique format could carry on without him.  I even thought, during the early years, that Fox was grooming Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) to be a viable lead if Sutherland departed.

I still think the show could manage without Sutherland.  The real culprit behind “Legacy’s” failure to stand out was its somewhat average writing.  It wasn’t bad, exactly … it was just average.  (Alright — for a little while, it was bad.  We see a key subplot/cliffhanger repeated three times, consecutively, in the same season. I’m surprised that major redundancy made it past the editing process.)  But mostly, it was average — we see thin staples of characters, and a plot that seemed largely reminiscent of … well, every other season of “24.”  (Admittedly, it must be tough after nine years to think up an original story for a serialized contemporary terror thriller in real-time format.)

The sad part is this — during the show’s final two or three episodes, it started showing more promise, with truly original plotting and unexpected conflicts.

The show got disappointing ratings.  We won’t know until at least May, but I think most viewers are guessing it won’t be renewed for another season.

 

A short review of “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016)

I’m not sure what to say about “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016).  It really differs little from the previous “Underworld” movies.  If you’ve seen those, you’ve kinda seen this one.

The vampires look like underwear models, or maybe a goths-only high school drama club.  The werewolves look … not homeless, exactly, but like burly, long-haired, unemployed grunge rockers.  Both groups speak portentously and repeatedly about things like “LINEAGE” and “BLOOD LINES” and “THE WAR” and “AMELIA.”  (Who was Amelia again?)  There are the requisite betrayals and forbidden inter-species romances.  The entire thing felt like a feature-length music video.

Maybe I’m being too harsh.  I would actually give this film a 5 out of 10 for at least bringing some good things to the table.  Kate Beckinsale is a good actress, and she brings the same magnetism that she always does to Selene, the franchise’s protagonist.  Charles Dance is always superb, and is always fun to watch.  (There are at least two “Game of Thrones” alumni here — one is Dance as a vampire elder, and the other is Tobias Menzies as the leader of the “Lycans.”)  The nicest surprise, though, was seeing Lara Pulver as an ambitious vampire alpha female — fans of “Sherlock” (2010 – 2017) will recognize her as that series’ incarnation of Irene Adler.  She’s a great actress, and she seems to relish this kind of role.

All in all, though, I can’t say I actually recommend this.

 

 

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A short review of “The Good Neighbor” (2016)

“The Good Neighbor” (2016) generally didn’t work for me.

My first problem was its premise.  Two teenage aspiring filmmakers play an elaborate high-tech prank on an elderly neighbor by installing hidden cameras in his home and then manipulating his environment: causing his lights and TV to malfunction, causing his windows to break, and even adjusting his thermostat to plunge the temperature so he’s forced to cope with the bitter cold.  They plan to mimic a haunting, and they rationalize it because he actually is a horrible person, well portrayed by James Caan in an understated performance.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense — what the teens are doing is against the law, and they know it.  (One explicitly states it at least once mid-way through the film.)  I count trespassing, criminal mischief and unlawful surveillance to start with, and I’m willing to bet they’d face charges for harassment too.  Yet they fully intend to makes themselves “famous” via the Internet with this cruel prank/documentary.  They shoot lengthy footage of themselves narrating the construction and implementation of their project; this is intended as part of the documentary.

But why would they upload detailed, inclusive evidence of their crimes to the Internet?  If they truly become “famous” with thousands of “hits” for their video, wouldn’t that mean countless people could bring them to the attention of the police?  (And, truthfully, even if they tried to remain anonymous, I’m sure any competent investigator viewing their video would at least count them as suspects.  One lives right across the street from Caan’s character.)

For much of its running length, “The Good Neighbor” actually succeeds at being a serviceable horror-thriller — if you can get past that hole in the premise.

But then we come to the second problem with this movie.  Towards its end, it takes an unexpected dramatic turn.  It stops being a thriller, and simply becomes a particularly sad drama.  I don’t want to say to much for fear of spoilers, suffice to say it’s a real downer.  But it isn’t frightening at all — or even terribly entertaining.

The only part near the end that pleased me was the movie’s final shot.  It was ambiguous, but it suggested a nice new level of character depth.  I thought it was neat.

Oh well.  Maybe others will enjoy this film more than I did.  I myself can’t recommend it, and I’d give it a 5 out of 10.

Postscript: you can have some fun here trying to figure out where you’ve seen these teenage actors before.  They’re both veterans of horror.  The mild-mannered one is Keir Gilchrist, who horror fans will recognize from “It Follows” (2014).  The meaner, more manipulative of the pair is Logan Miller, who played the goodhearted Benjamin in this past season of “The Walking Dead.”  It’s so weird seeing him play such different characters.

 

 

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A short review of “Here Alone” (2016)

I think “Here Alone” (2016) would disappoint a lot of casual zombie movie fans.  It is admittedly quite slow, there is very little action, and the zombies mostly inhabit the story’s background.

I really liked it.  It is a thoughtful, sensitive post-apocalyptic drama that is beautifully filmed in the mountains of upstate New York.  The idyllic rural setting is a terrific contrast to the film’s brutal plot devices.  And its naturalistic dialogue feels authentic — it’s either a very well written movie or its three principal actors are unusually good at improv.  (The conversations flow so organically that the latter seems plausible.)

The movie focuses on three survivors of a horrifying epidemic.  (The “zombies” here are of the “28 Days Later” variety, and turn murderous upon infection.)  Although they remain off screen for much of the movie, we are reminded of their threat by some intermittent, hellish screams.  (The sounds were perfect; it’s a nice touch that lent tension and atmosphere.)

All three leads — Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson and Gina Piersanti — were outstanding.  Walters’ performance was especially superb.  Her portrayal of a bereaved young wife and new mother was understated and subdued, but powerful.  She absolutely drew me in to the story.  We visit via flashback the fates of her husband and infant, and some of what we see is truly heart-rending.

The movie’s surprising final shot stayed with me for a while.   It’s ambiguous — maybe even confusing, at first.  But it makes sense if you reflect a little about the dialogue concerning the characters’ coping mechanisms.  It’s bittersweet, and seems to say something sad about survival and human attachments.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I recommend it.

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A short review of “Split” (2016)

For much of its running length, I was considering writing a review for “Split” (2016) that rated it a perfect 10.  (I am an unabashed fan of M. Night Shyamalan, no matter how reviled he is by other Internet commentators.)  I love the way he frames his shots, I love his dialogue, I love his stories, and I love the strange way he can make a slowly paced film nevertheless absorbing.)

And “Split” looked nearly perfect.  James McAvoy handed in a tour-de-force performance as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  (Yes, I am aware of the clinical controversies connected with whether the disorder even exists — I was a psychology student many, many years ago.  I think we should suspend whatever disbelief we have for the purposes of enjoying the movie.)  McAvoy plays his role to perfection.  His “Dennis” persona is particularly frightening, and “Barry,” one of the “good personalities” he portrays, is surprisingly endearing and sympathetic.

Playing off McAvoy wonderfully are Betty Buckley as his gentle psychiatrist and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenaged girls kidnapped by his nastier personalities.  The talented Taylor-Joy was also perfect in her role.  (I last saw her 2015’s “The Witch” and she was also in last year’s “Morgan;” I’m gaining the impression that this promising young specializes in cerebral horror-thrillers.)

I would rate “Split” an 8 out of 10.  It suffers a bit, I think, from two missteps toward the end.  One, this taut psychological thriller takes an ill-advised turn into dark fantasy.  I thought it was amazingly good as a thriller grounded only in the real world — it was far less so with the later jarring story elements.  (I do realize why Shyamalan made this creative decision, and you will too, after watching it and then reading up on it.)  But I still think that this would have been a perfect film if the majority of it focused on McAvoy’s personalities either aiding or misleading his psychiatrist, with Taylor-Joy’s fate hanging in the balance.

Two, this film seemed to suffer from the too-many-endings syndrome that people often associate with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.  We seem to have one denouement that works quite well, then a second that should have been re-shot and re-scripted.  And then there’s another plot strand finally addressed … but it is played so subtly that I’m not even sure I got it.  And this isn’t even counting the significance of the movie’s final line, which works as a fantastic framing device.

About that line … if you’re a Shyamalan fan, then you simply must watch the film until it’s very end, as the camera pans through the coffee shop.  You’ll love it.

 

 

A baffled review of “Lucy” (2014)

Everything you’ve heard about “Lucy” (2014) is correct — it’s exactly as trite and nonsensical as its multitude of unfavorable reviews have described it.  Maybe this was intended as some sort of weird, meta, inside joke by writer and director Luc Besson … after all, it’s a movie about increased “brain capacity” that is, ironically, really dumb.

I can’t imagine why Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman would sully their reputations by starring in this film.  Although, sadly, even the wonderful Johansson is not at her best here.  She seems to try to portray increased intelligence by delivering some of her lines like a robot.  (Seriously, she reads some of her lines like a speedy automaton, and it’s a bad creative decision for her performance.)

I could go on and on about the silly things in this movie.  So could you, if you’ve seen it.  But it’s a lot more fun listening to the surly wise-asses over at Cinema Sins.  Their trademark “Everything Wrong With” video for “Lucy” is particularly harsh.  At one point they call it “an aggressive dickhead of a movie.”  Here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3rZmnJ66Po

There is one overriding problem I need to address myself … and that’s how its premise seems to relate so little to the events of the story.  We begin by understanding that the titular Lucy is affected by a drug that increases her brain capacity.  Before the movie reaches its halfway mark, she appears to gain omniscience.  (She doesn’t need to actually learn anything — she simply knows virtually everything already.  This is evinced by her ability to translate foreign languages instantly, with no books or instruction at all.)  She also appears omnipotent by the film’s end.  Her powers become literally godlike.  And I’m not talking about Thor or Odin from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — we’re talking the all-powerful,  Old Testament God of Abraham.

Why?  Why should increased intelligence, no matter how incredibly vast, give her power of matter, space and even time?  If she were as smart as a thousand Stephen Hawkings, she still shouldn’t be able to do the things she does in the movie.

Believe it or not, I’d rate this movie a 4 out of 10.  (That’s far kinder than the other reviews I’ve read.)  I managed to have fun with this movie by rewriting some of it in my head while I watched.  Instead of Lucy benefiting from a drug that increases her brain capacity (which borrows a bit from 2011’s excellent “Limitless,” anyway), I pretended that I was watching a movie in which Scarlett Johansson became God.  (Think of 2003’s “Bruce Almighty.”)  Honestly.  I swapped out the plot device in my head, and imagined a different movie.  That made it fun — watching Scarlett Johansson as a wrathful God was strangely satisfying, especially when she wreaks havoc on the bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys … that is actually one thing that this otherwise clueless movie manages to get right.  No, I’m not kidding — the Taipei gangsters that serve as the story’s antagonists were performed to perfection by their actors.  The villains were repulsive and terrifying, and they aroused more interest in me than the good guys.  Min-sik Choi was terrific as the homicidal patriarch of the Taiwanese crime syndicate.  Even better, though, was Nicolas Phongbeth as the cherubic-faced, vaguely androgynous, sociopathic lieutenant.  If they were vanquished in this brainless movie, it’d be nice to see them resurrected in a James Bond film or a season of Fox’s “24.”  It’s weird seeing a movie so bad do one important thing so successfully.

There are really only two reasons why anybody should see “Lucy.”  One is morbid curiosity.  Two is if they are a learning to be a screenwriter, and are looking for a feature-length example of what NOT to do.

 

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