Film Review: The Conjuring 2 (dir by James Wan)


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The Conjuring 2 will scare the Hell out of you.

Seriously, I’ve seen a lot of horror films, including the first Conjuring (which I absolutely loved).  I’ve seen ghosts, vampires, demons, werewolves, psycho killers, and threats in the shadows.  I’ve seen cats jump out of closets.  I’ve seen ghostly faces suddenly appear in the darkness.  I’ve heard screams and chants and howls.  I’ve seen limbs severed in every possible way.  I’ve seen a lot of cinematic horror and, as a result, I tend to feel that there is nothing that can scare me.

Well, it turns out that’s not true because The Conjuring 2 scared the Hell out of me.

In many ways, The Conjuring 2 tells a familiar story.  Once again, the film begins with an opening crawl that informs us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story.  Once again, a loving but chaotic family is being haunted by evil spirits and the Church has asked paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to investigate.

The setup may sound familiar but director James Wan manages to keep the scares compelling.  Over the past few years, Wan has emerged as one of our greatest genre filmmakers.  Whether he’s directing an Insidious film or the latest Fast & Furious installment, James Wan knows how to hold an audience’s attention and how to make the potentially predictable compelling.  In The Conjuring 2, Wan creates and maintains such an atmosphere of dread that even the expected scares (bumps in the dark, voices in the shadows, slamming doors, and faces suddenly appearing in the background) take on an ominous intensity.  From the very first shot, Wan leaves the audience with a profound feeling of unease.  I was not alone in covering my eyes during a few scenes.  I was also not alone is occasionally looking around the darkened theater, just to make sure that there weren’t any ghosts creeping up on me.

That said, we all already know that James Wan is a master of horror.  We know that he can tell a ghost story and, from the minute we saw the first trailer, we all knew that The Conjuring 2 was going to be scary.  What sets The Conjuring 2 apart is the same thing that made the first Conjuring so special.  (For that matter, it’s the same thing that made Wan’s Furious 7 so special.)  Wan fills the screen with horror and spectacle but he also finds the time to celebrate his character’s humanity.

There’s a scene that occurs about 90 minutes into The Conjuring 2.  Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are visiting with the haunted family.  The family has been shaken by both the supernatural and the fact that so many people refuse to believe that they are actually being haunted.  Ed spies a guitar sitting in the corner of the room.  He grabs it and, with the haunted children gathered around them, he launches into a surprisingly good Elvis impersonation.  He sings I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, all the while glancing over at Lorraine standing in the doorway.

(What makes this especially touching is that Lorraine has been having premonitions of Ed’s violent death and is terrified that she’s going to lose him before they finish investigating this case.)

It’s a totally unexpected scene and yet it works perfectly.  Some of it is because Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have this great chemistry that makes you believe that they actually have been married for years.  But it’s also because the scene reminds us that The Conjuring 2 is about more than just ghosts and scares.  It’s also about love and family.  The haunting is threatening to end Ed and Lorraine’s love story.  The haunting is threatening to destroy a loving family.  Ed and Lorraine aren’t just investigating a ghost but they’re also saving a family.  They’re not just fighting against the supernatural.  They’re fighting for love.

And, in our cynical times, that may sound corny or silly or old-fashioned.  Well. you know what?  The Conjuring was an old-fashioned film and, in a way, so is The Conjuring 2.  But who cares?  Horror works best when it’s mixed with humanity.  The Conjuring 2 may be a horror film but it’s also a celebration of humanity, love, and family.

You may have noticed that I haven’t go into many specifics about the plot of The Conjuring 2.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  This is a film that you should experience with fresh eyes.  I could tell you about the scariest scene in this film but, if I did, you would not get the full experience.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen a lot of scary movie nuns but none of them can compare to The Conjuring 2.

The Conjuring 2 is the best supernatural horror film that I’ve seen this year so far.  It will scare you and it will touch your heart.  See it.

Also, be sure to stay for the end credits, which feature a lot of genuinely creepy snapshots of the actual locations where the film’s haunting is said to have occurred.  Not only are the pictures scary but they also show the care with which The Conjuring 2 recreated 1970s London.  Is the picture below a scene from the film or is it a picture that was taken during the actual haunting?  You’ll have to see The Conjuring 2 to find out!

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The Brief Thrill Of The Phoenix Film Critics Nominations


Lego MovieI have to admit that, when I first looked at the just-released Phoenix Film Critics Nominations for 2014, I got really excited.  I saw The LEGO Movie listed among the nominees for best picture and I thought to myself, “Oh my God!  Could The LEGO Movie be set to be the fourth animated film to score a best picture nomination from the Academy!?”

Seriously, my inner movie trivia lover was so excited!

Then, of course, I remembered that critical recognition doesn’t necessarily translate into Oscar nominations.  And I was forced to admit that The LEGO Movie probably will not be nominated for best picture, though it definitely remains a front runner for best animated feature.

But, for a few moments there, I was truly an excited Oscar watcher.

Anyway, here are the Phoenix Film Critics Nominations!

(h/t to Awards Circuit)

BEST PICTURE/ TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • Gone Girl
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • The Imitation Game
  • The Lego Movie
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
  • David Fincher, Gone Girl
  • Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
  • Richard Linklater, Boyhood

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  • Brendon Gleeson, Calvary
  • Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
  • Michael Keaton, Birdman
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Amy Adams, Big Eyes
  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Hilary Swank, The Homesman
  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
  • Logan Lerman, Fury
  • Edward Norton, Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
  • J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
  • Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone, Birdman

BEST ENSMEBLE ACTING

  • Birdman
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Into the Woods

BEST SCREENPLAY WRITTEN DIRECTLY FOR THE SCREEN

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Whiplash

BEST SCREENPLAY ADAPTED FROM ANOTHER MEDIUM

  • American Sniper
  • Gone Girl
  • The Imitation Game
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Wild

BEST LIVE ACTION FAMILY FILM

  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Into the Woods
  • Maleficent
  • Muppets Most Wanted

BEST ANIMATED FILM

  • Big Hero 6
  • The Boxtrolls
  • The Lego Movie
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2

OVERLOOKED FILM OF THE YEAR

  • Calvary
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Obvious Child
  • The Skeleton Twins
  • Snowpiercer

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

  • Force Majeure
  • IDA
  • Mood Indigo
  • The Raid 2

BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • Citizenfour
  • Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune
  • Life Itself
  • Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • Everything is Awesome, The Lego Movie
  • Immortals, Big Hero 6
  • Lost Stars, Begin Again
  • Miracles, Unbroken

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

  • Birdman
  • Gone Girl
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • The Theory of Everything

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Birdman
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Unbroken

BEST FILM EDITING

  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • Gone Girl
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Snowpiercer

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Inherent Vice
  • Into the Woods
  • Maleficent
  • The Theory of Everything

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Interstellar

BEST STUNTS

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • John Wick
  • Need for Speed
  • The Raid 2

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE ON CAMERA

  • Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE BEHIND THE CAMERA

  • Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
  • Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
  • Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child
  • Jon Stewart, Rosewater

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH – MALE

  • Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
  • Daniel Huttlestone, Into the Woods
  • Jaeden Lieberber, St. Vincent
  • Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH – FEMALE

  • Lilla Crawford, Into the Woods
  • Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar
  • Sterling Jerins, And So It Goes

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Review: World War Z (dir. by Marc Forster)


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I’ll get this out of the way and just say it: World War Z the film pretty much has nothing in common with the acclaimed novel of the same name by author Max Brooks (reviewed almost at the very beginning of the site). Ok, now that we have that out of the way it’s time to get to the important part and that’s how did the film version turn out on it’s own merits.

World War Z was a film that took the long, winding and rough road to finally get to the big-screen. Whether it was the five different writers brought in to work on the script (J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame came onboard first with Christopher McQuarrie coming unofficially to help tighten a few scenes in the end) to the massive changes made to the original source material that was bound to anger the fans of the novel, the film by Marc Forster had an uphill climb to accomplish even before the final product even came to market.

I was as surprised as man others were that the finished product was better than I had anticipated. Some had very low expectations about World War Z coming in due to the rumors and news reports coming in about the problems during production, but it doesn’t change the fact that the unmitigated disaster predicted by every film blogger and critic beforehand never came to fruition.

World War Z might not have been what fans of the novel had wanted it to be, but when seen on it’s own merit the film was both exciting and tension-filled despite some flaws in the final script and use of well-worn horror tropes.

The film begins with a visual montage interspersing scenes of nature (particularly the swarming, hive-like behavior of certain animals like birds, fish, and insects), alarmist news media reporting and the mindless celebrity-driven entertainment media that’s so big around the world. From there we’re introduced to the main protagonist of the film in one Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt) and his family. We see that the Lane family definitely love and care for each other with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos in the supportive wife role) and their two young daughters, Rachel and Constance. The film could easily have spent a lot of time establishing this family and their relationship towards each other, but we move towards the film’s first major sequence pretty much right after the opening. It’s this choice to not linger on the characters too long that becomes both a strength and a weakness to the film’s narrative throughout.

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World War Z finally shows why it’s not your typical zombie film with it’s first major sequence in the center of downtown Philadelphia as Gerry and his family sees themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. As they wait there are some subtle hints that something might just be somewhat awry ahead of them as we see more and more police racing towards some sort of emergency ahead of the family and more and more helicopters flying overhead. There’s a brief lull in the scene before all hell breaks loose and the film’s zombie apocalypse aspect goes from 0 straight to 11 in a split second.

It’s this sequence of all-encompassing chaos overtaking a major metropolitan city seen both on the ground through the eyes of Gerry Lane and then on flying overhead wide shots of the city that gives World War Z it’s epic scope that other zombie films (both great and awful) could never truly capture. It’s also in this opening action sequence that we find the film’s unique take on the tried-and-true zombie. While not the slow, shambling kind that was described in the novel, these fast-movers (owes a lot more on the Rage-infected from 28 Days Later) bring something new to the zomgie genre table by acting like a cross between a swarm of birds or insects with the rapidly infectious nature of a virus.

These zombies do not stop to have a meal of it’s victims once they’ve bitten one but instead rapidly moves onto the next healthy human in order to spread the contagion it carries. We even get an idea of how quickly a bitten victim dies and then turns into one of “Zekes” as a soldier has ended up nicknaming them. It’s this new wrinkle in the zombie canon that adds to the film’s apocalyptic nature as we can see just how the speed of the infection and the swarm-like behavior of the zombies could easily take down the emergency services of not just a city and state but of entire nations.

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World War Z works best when it doesn’t linger too long between action sequences. Trying to inject some of the themes and ideas that made the novel such a joy to read only comes off as an uncomfortable attempt to try and placate fans of the novel. When we get scenes like Philadelphia in settings like Jerusalem and, in smaller scales but no less tense, like in South Korea and on a plane, the film works as a nice piece of summer action fare. This works in the first two thirds of the film but a sudden shift in the final third in Cardiff, Wales could be too jarring of a tonal shift in storytelling for some.

While the change from epic and apocalyptic to intimate and contained in the final third was such a sudden change this sequence works, but also shows just how bad the original final third of the film was to make this sudden change. It proves to be somewhat anticlimactic when compared to the epic nature of the first two-thirds of the film. We get a final third that’s more your traditional horror film. In fact, one could easily see World War Z as two different films vying for control and, in the end, the two halves having to try to co-exist and make sense.

World War Z doesn’t bring much of the sort of societal commentaries and themes that we get from the very best of zombie stories, but it does bring the sort of action that we rarely get from zombie films. The film actually doesn’t come off as your traditional zombie film, but more like a disaster story that just happened to have zombies as the root cause instead of solar flares, sudden ice age or alien invasion.

So, while World War Z only shares the title with the source novel it was adapting and pretty much not much else, the film wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that had been predicted for months leading up to it’s release. It’s a fun, rollercoaster ride of film that actually manages to leave an audience wanting to know more instead of being bombarded with so much action that one becomes desensitized and bored by it. There’s no question that a better film, probably even a great one, lurks behind the fun mess that’s the World War Z we’ve received, but on it’s own the film more than delivers on the promise that most films during the summer fails to achieve and that’s to entertain.