The Conjuring 2 Review: London Calling


Director: James Wan

Writers: James Wan, Chad & Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe

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Release date: June 9th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 134 minutes


3½/5

Best part: Farmiga and Wilson.

Worst part: The familiar story structure.

The horror genre has gone through some strange and rocky times over the past several decades. The genre was once a cinematic paradise of trend-setters (Jaws,  The Exorcist) foreign treats (Suspiria) and franchises (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th etc.). Nowadays, thanks largely to Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes juggernaut, horror has been swallowed up by reboots and remakes. Thankfully, the Conjuring franchise is here to show its fellow Hollywood counterparts how it’s done.

2013’s The Conjuring was the first movie to receive an R18+ rating based entirely on terror rather than nudity, violence, or explicit language. The original has your classic ghost/demon story – a family is terrorised, a young girl becomes possessed, crucifixes are bared, and the power of Christ compels the spirit back to hell. This time around…all of those elements occur. Set in 1977, this sequel follows a family stuck in lower-class Enfield, North London. Single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) Hodgson struggles to keep everything afloat. Making matters worse, The family – youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), in particular – are hampered by spirits wandering their dilapidated council house. Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), made famous by their involvement in the Amityville massacre investigation, are assigned to the Hodgons’ concerning case.

Like many of 2016’s sequels, The Conjuring 2, despite closely resembling the original, falls just short of recapturing the magic. Director/co-writer James Wan, coming back to horror after Furious 7 and before Aquaman, delivers his trademark style of graphic supernatural-thriller filmmaking. The Australian-Malaysian director’s vision is fascinating – introduced with the original Saw flick, built upon with projects like Death Sentence and the Insidious franchise, and perfected with the original Conjuring. Here, however, his direction far outshines the screenplay. Developed by Wan, Chad and Carey Hayes, and David Leslie Johnson), the script stretches standard horror-thriller/ghost story/exorcism conventions over a tiresome 134-minute run-time. This installment is a tad predictable; carrying tropes including an overpopulated family, a rundown house, and questions about faith over from the original.

Wan continually establishes himself as a hyperkinetic and intensifying filmmaker. Free from studio constraints, he lathers every frame with his unique and uncompromising vision. Wan is the jumpscare master – toying with our expectations whilst building to moments of unrequited dread. Joseph Bishara’s relentless score flutters in and out at opportune moments. The composer’s screeches and strums ratchet up the tension throughout its many set pieces. Don Burgess’ impressive camerawork floats through hallways and in between rooms with textbook precision. Wan’s eye for period detail, costume and set design balances between bold and subdued. Adding to the movie’s flair, Farmiga and Wilson blend into the narrative and make for a believable married couple.

Featuring demon nuns, possessed children and Elvis Presley sing-a-longs, The Conjuring 2 is equal parts fun and frightening. Wan’s unique and kinetic direction overshadows the familiar screenplay. His latest blood-curdling jaunt is a contender for 2016’s best horror flick and most successful sequel.

Verdict: A chilling horror-sequel.

The Judge Review – In His Defence…


Director: David Dobkin

Writers: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque

Stars: Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio


Release date: October 10th, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 142 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The winning performances.

Worst part: The underdeveloped sub-plots.

In one of legal drama The Judge‘s many courtroom scenes, our ‘antagonist’, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) delivers a line which proverbially sums up the movie. Dealing with a deadbeat defendant refusing to pay child support, the second-billed character takes away the keys to his new pick-up truck and gives them to the pregnant, white trash plaintiff. As the man complains, Judge Palmer stops him and says: “You’re standing in one of the last great cathedrals in this country, built on the premise that you and you alone are responsible for the consequences of your actions”.

Robert Downey, Jr. & Robert Duvall.

Robert Downey, Jr. & Robert Duvall.

Oddly enough, this momentous line encompasses The Judge‘s positives and negatives. On the one hand, there has been a lot of love poured into the movie’s production and distribution. Shortly before its release, critics and audiences were given hope. With each new image and trailer, our anticipation levels grew over the prospect of Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. earning serious Oscar contention. In addition, Downey, Jr. and Duvall made for interesting interviewees. So, how does the final product compare to our overwhelming expectations? Sadly, not so well. Compared to 2014’s other Oscar hopefuls, The Judge doesn’t do enough to guarantee statuettes. However, if judged on its own, the movie delivers enough positives to scrape by. The story, despite being encapsulated by Duvall’s character, does not centre around the veteran performer. Instead, we get Robert Downey, Jr. playing Tony Stark playing a whip-smart lawyer. As one of Chicago’s most valuable defense attorneys, Henry “Hank” Palmer (Downey, Jr.) knows the ins and outs of the judicial system like no one else. Dodging morally-sound prosecutors left and right, this big-shot lawyer – whilst defending an infamous insurance scammer – gets the shock of his life. After learning of his mother’s death, he packs an overnight bag and heads straight for the modest town of Carlinville, Indiana. Juggling a messy divorce, a young child, and a valuable case, Hank doesn’t plan on staying too long after the funeral.

Downey, Jr. & Vera Farmiga.

Downey, Jr. & Vera Farmiga.

The Judge‘s central conceit revolves around an ethically-inconsistent, big-city lawyer and his law-abiding father. Joseph, known to everyone in town as “Judge”, is a friendly citizen and true professional. At the wake, everyone gives Joseph a big, ol’ hug. Hank simply shakes his hand and slips back into the shadows. However, after Joseph becomes a hit-and-run murder’s prime suspect, Hank agrees to stick around. So, why do they hate each other so much? This question should have been the movie’s biggest concern. With two talented A-listers at the helm, the movie hinges on their stellar reputations and likeable personas. In fact, aided by their spirited back-and-forths about the past, present, and future, the movie excels whenever they drop their guards to shout at one another. One scene, in which Hank and Joseph conduct a shouting match whilst a record-breaking storm screeches through town, is worth the price of admission. However, I’m going to give Hollywood some advice: for the love of God, make shorter movies again! Pushing The Judge to a ridiculous 142-minute run-time, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights), makes several easily avoidable mistakes. Like Wedding Crashers, most of drama revolves around   meaningless and peculiar sub-plots. Here, the plot-threads include Joseph’s fight against cancer, Hank’s mentally-challenged brother (Jeremy Strong) and his Super-8 camera, his older brother(Vincent D’Onofrio)’s ruined baseball career, Hank’s re-connection with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), Hank butting heads with a local lawyer (Dax Shepard), the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), and a questionable hook-up (Leighton Meester).

“Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a hot tub” (Henry “Hank” Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), The Judge).

Downey, Jr., Vincent D'Onofrio & Jeremy Strong.

Downey, Jr., Vincent D’Onofrio & Jeremy Strong.

Throwing intriguing ideas across multiple story-lines, The Judge reeks of desperation, self-consciousness, and carelessness. Throughout its hodge-podge story, the tone drastically switches every few minutes. Stalling its own momentum, the movie fails to add up to the sum of its parts. In addition, the movie doesn’t know what to say. Despite criticising Middle America’s wholesomeness, the movie unfairly condemns Hank for following making a living in the urban jungle. This Oscar-baiter, revelling in cliches, is an unremarkable concoction of A Few Good Men, Up in the Air, and Garden State. In fact, a wily filmmaker like Jason Reitman, Alexander Payne, or Jon Favreau would yell “objection” at its inconsistent pacing, undeveloped supporting characters, and irritating sub-plots. However, Dobkin makes several succinct directorial choices. Its visual flourishes – including Janusz Kaminski’s light-and-shadow-fuelled cinematography, Thomas Newman’s uplifting soundtrack choices (ranging from Willie Nelson to Bon Iver), and Mark Livolsi’s fluid editing – bolster certain moments whilst crafting an approachable glow. Like Jerry Maguire, the movie aptly centres around its most interesting character. The Judge – the first production from Downey, Jr. and wife Susan Downey’s production company, Team Downey – comes from good intentions. Downey, Jr., crafting one of Hollywood’s most successful comebacks, is charismatic as the cynical and pithy lead. Duvall, crafting one of Hollywood’s most inspiring careers, is brilliant in prick mode. Meanwhile, despite the lack of attention, Farmiga, D’Onofrio, and Strong deliver powerful turns.

As a homage to Hollywood’s best courtroom battles and familial dramas, The Judge strives to be relevant and award-worthy. Despite the gravitas, the story is summed up in one line: “Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a hot tub”. In fact, Downey, Jr. and Duvall do trim some fat. So, why is the movie still so long? As studio-driven Oscar bait, it unyieldingly becomes its own judge, jury, and executioner.

Verdict: A enjoyable yet inconsistent courtroom-drama.

Safe House Review – Determined Denzel


Director: Daniel Espinosa

Writer: David Guggenheim

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard


Release date: February 15th, 2012

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 115 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The South African settings.

Worst part: The generic plot.

With popular actor Denzel Washington playing a hardened protagonist in this violent action thriller, you may feel a sense of deja vu. Films such as Training Day and Man on Fire prove that Washington still has what it takes to adapt to any genre. His latest effort however, will leave you wanting more from his earlier, distinguished work as Safe House surprisingly fails to spark any real excitement from its intriguing premise.

Ryan Reynolds.

This time, Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA operative who went rogue 10 years earlier and is believed to be a traitor. His search for answers within the agency leads him straight into trouble with the CIA and a band of African rebels; both already watching his every move. On the other side of the coin, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a rookie operative struggling to find his sense of belonging in the agency, is forced to look after a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Frost is brought to the safe house and brutally interrogated after his run in with authorities. Almost immediately, the safe house is attacked and Matt, quickly forced to prove himself, extracts Frost to the next safe location. Their varying ideologies of trust and protocol are changed drastically as they question their responsibilities, emotional attachments and the inner workings of the CIA.

Denzel Washington.

The conventional plot, dialogue and characters don’t lift this thriller above the standard Hollywood action film structure, however convincing and thought provoking performances from Washington and Reynolds manage to keep Safe House together. Their electrifying chemistry accentuates their largely differing personalities. Scenes early in the film of Reynolds’ character boxing, walking lazily through the hallways of the safe house, and bouncing a ball against a wall for hours on end, define his strong desire to prove himself beyond controlling one secure location. This is compared to Washington meeting with a buyer and brutally taking down and escaping from Agents and rebels, illustrating his vastly different skill set and level of experience when compared to Reynolds’ character while defining their yin and yang relationship. Reynolds’ performance is strongly defined by his facial expressions. His naturalistic reactions when forced either to kill someone or explain his situation to his girlfriend,  illustrate his strong emotional shift when discovering the crushing depths his new life has led him to. This also proves that Reynolds is vastly becoming one of the most dynamic young actors consistently working.

“You practice anything a long time, you get good at it. You tell a hundred lies a day, is sounds like the truth. Everyone betrays everyone.” (Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), Safe House).

Washington’s character is unfortunately given short shrift. Not only have we seen several, more developed, variations of his version of the anti-hero before, but the plot revolving around his search for answers becomes increasingly uninteresting as the film goes on. Also given nothing but basic characterisations are Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson. These talented, veteran actors are wasted in their small roles  that serve little for the story. The style of this film distracts from the clear and simplistic exposition given. First time Hollywood director Daniel Espinosa takes many leaves out of Tony Scott’s book while choosing to film South Africa as if through the eye of the follower. The cinematography, involving shaky hand held camera work and very low lighting, serve a purpose in conveying a sense of realism, but severely  detract from the film’s unique appearance. This becomes abundantly clear in the many action scenes peppered  throughout. Though the action is well choreographed and shockingly violent, quick cuts and problematic cinematography keep them from either being creative for even understandable. The settings and colour patterns of Safe House are presented effectively, delivering a gritty representation of both the African desert landscapes and decrepit Cape Town settings. While also serving a perfect reflection of this story of dirt under the fingernails of the CIA and the murderous extremes people will go to.

Ultimately, Safe House is an action packed yet forgettable thriller. Serving a message about the free world’s view of its governments and security, and the treatment of prisoners in US government controlled interrogations, may be convincingly handled, but the poorly handled cinematography and conventional story and character elements keep it from being the relevant and entertaining action flick it deserves to be.

Verdict: A star-studded yet underwhelming action-thriller.