18 July 2013

The Conjuring sure to possess audiences

Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) uses a music box to make one of The Conjuring's many spirits materialize.

Director James Wan, following the international box office success of 2011’s supremely creepy Insidious, returns with the well-constructed haunted house film, The Conjuring. While Wan could have built a successful horror career around the “gore-porn” elements of his earlier Saw (2004), he has instead consistently frightened audiences with suspenseful and unsettling situations. The Conjuring adds another level of terror to Wan’s proven directorial skills with a script based on events from the lives and case files of real-life demonologist couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens are perhaps best known for their investigation of the supernatural events recounted in the book and film versions of The Amityville Horror, and The Conjuring makes several overt nods to the classic 1979 film version of the incident. Rather than the overt references, though, it is the faithful recreation of the same small-town, New England culture of the early 1970s in The Conjuring that most reflects Amityville. Wan treats the setting with just enough camp to bring grins to reminiscent older audience members, but not so much that the film lapses into parody or loses its terrifying momentum. The result is a smart, scary, and self-aware movie that hits a breathless pace midway in and does not let up until the final credits roll.

The Conjuring is not without its missteps, including a couple of comedic lines of dialogue that, rather than complement the horror, seem out of place. Thankfully, none of those jokes are put in the mouth of Ron Livingston, who, despite stints in several dramatic television series, always carries with him the comedic spectre of Office Space. His understated performance and shaggy-haired look in this film, though, make him nearly unrecognizable and keep his Roger subdued. Of the four principle actors, however, he is the least noteworthy.

Instead, it is Lili Taylor’s performance as his wife, Carolyn, that ultimately shines. For much of the film she, too, is subdued, with most of the early action involving the five young daughters of the family. At the climactic moment of the film, however, her shift in demeanor is captivating. The character of a woman sharing a supernatural bond with demonic, domestic forces is a comfortable role for Taylor, having starred in the 1999 remake of the haunted house classic, The Haunting.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who quite capably embody the Warrens, are no strangers to horror fans, either. Wilson also stars in the aforementioned Insidious and Farmiga is fresh off a successful stint as Norman Bates’ mother, Norma, in A&E’s discomfiting series, Bates Motel. The actors move convincingly and seamlessly between scenes in which they are required to perform as academics, as loving parents, and as stalwart combatants against the forces of hell.

If classic drive-in horror is your milieu, do yourself a favor and see The Conjuring. If you prefer the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror to the original, hold out for another Saw installment.

10 July 2013

Pacific Rim more of the spectacular same, only different

With Pacific Rim, Writer-director Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham have created a definitive summer blockbuster movie that paints the giant cinemaplex canvas with 2 hours and 11 minutes of heart-pounding spectacle. The action is so densely packed that there is an entire feature film’s worth of story before the opening title appears. It is the kind of movie that begs to be seen obscenely large and heard outrageously loud. Every richly constructed detail, in all its realistically rendered hi-definition glory commands our attention in creating a world like none we’ve ever seen. And, yet, in a way, we’ve seen it all before.

That is because Pacific Rim seems manufactured to provide audiences with exactly what they want. Its success is easily predictable because it is everything that recent box office figures have shown audiences want, and more.  It has the immersive CG environment of Avatar, along with its story device of action carried out by human-operated surrogates. It shares the fanciful martial arts combat numbers of The Last Airbender or Hero.  It involves levels of meta-narrative, stories within stories, and linked minds and memories like Inception before it. Images of full-scale, urban apocalypse scroll past like those we’ve seen in 2012 and the Dark Knight films.

The movie borrows heavily from older films, as well. The Hong Kong of Pacific Rim very much resembles the Los Angeles of Blade Runner.  Flashback scenes of a character in her youth, wandering alone in the ruins of a city devasted by kaiju, attempt to evoke a similar pathos as that created by the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. An unending laundry-list of allusions and resemblances shape the movie:

  • the melodramatic flight camaraderie of Top Gun (although calculatedly avoiding the homoeroticism of that earlier film by primarily pairing pilots in familial relationships-- brothers and father/son teams-- but sharing that film's unbelievably forced romantic storyline)
  • the us vs. them, sci-fi military machismo of Aliens and Starship Troopers
  • the hostile alien colonization scenario of Prometheus
  • the behemoth, anthropomorphic battle machines of the Power Rangers and Transformers

Of course, the basic concept of the kaiju (“strange  beast”) is indebted to Godzilla and other classic oversized, city-stomping monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. While del Toro has explicitly stated that he did not want the creature designs to reference any familiar screen monsters, comparisons with the critters of Cloverfield are inevitable.

The film’s harvesting of visual and narrative elements from already-proven sources isn’t limited to the big screen, either. Pacific Rim wields the TV-MA star power of Sons of Anarchy by appropriating its handsome star, Charlie Hunnam, and its less-than-handsome star, Ron Perlman. It takes advantage of the ridiculous, but charming, comic sensibilities of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day. News media and historical images shape the visual quality of the film, too. At times, the rolling cloud wave of debris moving through the streets, past skyscrapers, looks as if it might be archive coverage of September 11, with the remnants of the city resembling post-atomized Hiroshima.

Pacific Rim is a mosaic made up mostly of shards of previous films, of recognizable elements, both visual and narrative. Yet, the unique conglomeration, pacing, and arrangement of these elements form a constellation like nothing we’ve seen on screen before. What audiences are presented with is an uncanny movie, in a very literal sense; as the story unfolds, it looks and sounds comfortably familiar, and yet somehow strangely different. The result is that we are kept interested, awaiting the next recognizable scene, perhaps in spite of ourselves.

Pacific Rim is altogether entertaining, never really promising to be more than it is—an enjoyable, highly-marketable action film, positioned respectfully in a lineage of similarly enjoyable, highly-marketable action films. It is likely this summer’s definitive blockbuster and it is just what we’ve asked for in terms of saccharine cinematic dessert. If we’re ultimately unhappy with the taste, we have only ourselves to blame for ordering seconds.