Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Fright Stuff: “The Conjuring” is So Good It’s Scary

Horror isn’t the most reputable of film genres. Therefore it’s a great feeling when a horror film as good as The Conjuring comes along. Even if it borrows heavily from the movies that came before it, the movie feels like a breath of fresh air amongst others who give the genre a bad name. It’s a film that can arguably hold up against such classics as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Poltergeist. It has everything you could ask for in a great horror film. Not only is it wonderfully scary and intense, but it’s a well-made film in general. It features great acting, wonderful direction, a nice 70s style, and great sense of foreboding that peaks with a truly satisfactory, and disturbing, climax.

The Conjuring will hit home for those who grew up in and around Connecticut and those familiar with the paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. This real life couple has spent a lifetime investigating the supernatural and giving lectures about their experiences. They’ve been witness to ghosts and spirits and demons and exorcisms. They have helped many, many people all over who have had “incidents” involving the supernatural. Whether you believe them or not is up to you. I however, truly believe that THEY believe in what they’re doing. The Conjuring follows Ed and Lorraine (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) in the early 1970s as they investigate a disturbance at a farm house in Rhode Island. It remains one of their most intense, and not talked about, cases. Until now.  

As the film opens, we get to see a case the Warrens investigated involving a haunted doll named Annabelle. Then the film starts like any other scary movie: the Perrons, a nice-looking family moves into a new creepy old house. But they weird things begin to happen, like all of their clocks stopping at 3:07 AM. And things begin to go bump in the night and even during the day. The mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) begins suspecting something is wrong while playing a game of Hide and Clap in the house with her youngest daughter. Let’s just say the clapping sound she hears isn’t from her daughter. Soon things begin to get so out of control Carolyn and her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) seek out the Warrens for help. It is here that the Warrens’s storyline and the Perron’s storyline finally come together. And the best part is that you’re not quite sure where the movie is going.

There are so many great things to say about The Conjuring I’m not quite sure where to start. First of all, one must admire the film’s great sense of 70s style. Sure it gets the wardrobe and setting just right, but the cinematic choices employed by director James Wan (“Saw” and “Insidious”) is simply too delicious to ignore. There’s a great long take tracking shot straight from a PT Anderson film. There are many zooms which is a staple of 70s filmmaking. Heck, even that famous Vertigo shot that Spielberg used in Jaws makes an appearance. It’s a wonder ode to the 70s when Hollywood American filmmaking was arguably at its creative peak.

The acting is terrific. Farmiga has undeniably become one of my favorite actresses to watch. Her work here as Lorraine is simply exquisite. Unfortunately it’s most likely too subtle to receive much awards notice, but watch her and you’ll be amazed. She works so well with Wilson you’d think they were a real couple. Taylor is simply sensational too. There is much required of her character as the movie progresses and you really get the sense of fear and anxiety that comes with so much trauma. The girls who play the Perron child are all excellent.

And the film is scary. You can’t really complain when a film is so great at making you feel completely rattled to the bone. I’m not quite sure the film was as scary as the first Paranormal Activity or even Insidious, but the film has some truly effective chills and none of them ever feel cheap or forced. Wan creates a genuine sense of fear, not false scares. It will therefore most likely be as scary on a second viewing. The special effects employed here to scare you feel real. It seems most of the effects are practical and while the film is rated R it’s never all that graphic. Apparently the MPAA just found the film just too darned scary. That’s pretty awesome.

I can’t quite say enough good things about The Conjuring. The film, written by Chad and Carey Hayes who have come a long way from the House of Wax remake, is a wonderful little mystery as well. It’s stylish, suspenseful, creepy, and has really great characters (who rarely do stupid things) that are brought to life by equally great actors. The effects are pretty great, with minimal CGI, and the sound design really adds to the creep factor. Whether you’re a fan of the horror genre or love haunted house thrillers or are curious about the Warrens getting the Hollywood treatment, you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out The Conjuring. It’s not quite all that groundbreaking and there are plenty of movies that have come before that it owes to greatly, but it just does everything right. It’s one of the best scary movies in years. It might even be one of the best movies of the year. Scary indeed.  GRADE: A

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Trench Warfare: The Thrilling “Pacific Rim” is a Great Sci-Fi Monster Movie That Delivers

Those who are sick of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films can breath a sigh of relief. “Pacific Rim” is nothing like the mechanical, headache-inducing blockbuster series that has gobbled up the world’s collective cash. Sure there are giant robots and there’s lots of loud action, but “Pacific Rim” achieves a level of greatness and sophistication Michael Bay will most likely never match. As directed by cult favorite Guillermo del Toro, “Pacific Rim” tells of a future in which giant monsters begin appearing through a portal on the ocean floor, poised to attack and rid earth of human life. If it sounds like something you’ve seen before you’re absolutely right – and yet the film, which isn’t based on anything, feels like a breath of fresh air. It has its inspirations (like Godzilla and other Asian influences) for sure and sort of hits all the standard sci-fi action notes, but there’s something so decidedly breezy and enjoyable about it any flaws can easily be forgiven.

Unlike most summer blockbusters the film has no real movie stars. The film stars Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy devoid of biker tattoos and a greasy beard. Hunnam is Raleigh Becket who is a decorated Jaeger pilot. Jaegers are massive robotic machines designed to fight the giant monsters that have begun creeping up from a mysterious portal on the ocean floor. A previous tragedy has forced Raleigh to lay low, but he’s lured out of retirement by Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) after even bigger versions of the monsters – referred to as Kaijus – begin appearing at an alarming rate. The plan is to destroy the portal with a nuclear device. I love the concept of the Jaegers and how they operate. They’re piloted by two people whose minds are linked by a neural connection. Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia provides a little comic relief as a hipster scientist who studies the creatures and discovers a way to link the human mind with that of the Kaijus.

The film begins wonderfully by showing us how the monsters first arrived and all of the eventual steps that were taken as the world banded together to help fight them. The creatures have been attacking for years and the bulk of the film takes place towards the end of the overall conflict. And it’s a credit to del Toro for creating such a fascinating future world. The production design is outstanding. Take for instance the sequence in which Day’s character goes to Hong Kong in search of a black market Kaiju brain. The colors and set design are weird and outstanding. Ron Perlman blends into the strange surroundings with a nice juicy supporting role here as the intimidating Hannibal Chau who deals in trading illegal Kaiju parts.

The bulk of the story, however, features lots of fighting sequences in which the creatures show up to destroy humanity while being fended off by the giant Jaeger machines. These scenes could have easily become tedious and repetitive. They aren’t. While they’re cut together in the usual fast action spectacle way, I was never quite confused as to what was happening. Most of the scenes take place at night and in or near the ocean but the darkness never seemed to prohibit my ability to enjoy these sequences; though I was wise to choose the 2D option.

I really loved everything about “Pacific Rim.” It has all the standard summer action movie elements we’ve seen before yet they’re all presented in a much more tolerable way. There’s no forced romance – though there’s a clear connection between Raleigh and his new female Asian Jaeger co-pilot played by Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi. Sure there’s an unnecessary Top Gun-esque rivalry between Raleigh and an Aussie colleague. But there certainly isn’t that annoying trademark Michael Bay glamorization of the military that has grown so tiresome in his films. And ok I can’t say the film’s ending held any real surprises. Though, to be honest, I wanted to cheer. But everything else about the movie was so right. The score is memorable, the effects are great, the story flows nicely, it doesn’t feel overlong, and del Toro (who is a co-writer with Travis Beacham) adds a perfect sense of foreign strangeness to the whole thing that just isn’t possible with an American director. “Pacific Rim” is a monster movie that delivers the goods.  GRADE: A-

Friday, July 05, 2013

The College Years: “Monsters University” is Solid Fun If Not Particularly Pixar’s Best

I wasn’t much impressed with Pixar’s last two efforts “Brave” and “Cars 2” so I went into “Monsters University” with some trepidation.  It’s a prequel to the 2001 hit “Monsters Inc” which was never really one of my all time favorites though a recent viewing confirmed that it’s a solid Pixar film. “Monsters University” will mostly delight those who love Pixar because it features some truly memorable characters, fantastic animation, and an enjoyable if not altogether original story. The film follows the early years of Monsters Inc “scarers” Mike and Sully as they traverse through the wild world of college life. It’s essentially Pixar’s answer to “Old School” or “Revenge of the Nerds.” Never has there been a more family friendly depiction of college life. Though those red Solo cups do make their requisite appearance for those who are curious.

The film begins with a grade school aged Mike Wazowski on a class trip to Monsters Inc. His class is learning about how the employees use their scaring skills to harvest children’s screams which power their entire monster world. Mike instantly dreams of becoming a “scarer.” Years later Mike (now voiced by Billy Crystal) heads off to Monsters University as a scare major. There he first meets Sulley (John Goodman) a cocky goofball who is riding the coattails of his popular family name. Sulley and Mike certainly do not hit it off right away and actually get in serious trouble with the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (voiced with pleasing menace by Helen Mirren). They’re on the brink of being tossed out of the program but devise a plot to stay in. Mike, along with a team of loser monsters, will have to compete in the annual fraternity-run Scare Games. If his team wins he gets to stay in the program, if he loses he’ll be kicked out of Monsters University.

From here on out the film takes on all the tropes and clichés of a typical college comedy without any of the gross-out parts. Of course the film is smarter than most of those movies and so it has fun playing with your expectations. The film’s real highlight, however, is its truly memorable new characters. Art, voiced by Charlie Day, for instance is a delightful fury goof, who essentially looks like a crazy muppet. Then there’s the two headed monsters named Terry and Terri. Pixar’s character design is simply magnificent. The animation is simply stunning and with each film gets more and more realistic yet remains obviously computer generated. And the film really recreates the magical chemistry created between Goodman and Crystal. It’s fun to see how Sulley and Mike went from being rivals to becoming friends. Even though we mostly know how everything will eventually turn out, the film’s script takes enough detours to keep everyone on their toes.

There’s nothing overwhelmingly amazing or groundbreaking about Monsters University, it remains a funny, easily digestible, and entertaining, if unnecessary, piece of animated fun. And although the animation is stunning and the character design is pretty amazing, this doesn’t reach the high standard set by the Toy Story films or Finding Nemo; not even the brilliance of Disney’s Pixar-less “Wreck-It Ralph.” It’s certainly a much better effort than the dreadful “Cars 2.” But let’s all hope that Pixar has run the gamut of sequels and prequels (though Finding Dory could be promising) and sticks to original content from here on out.  GRADE: B+