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The Conjuring

Modern horror directors aren’t easy to come by. The glory days of the George Romero’s and John Carpenter’s seem all but lost; only a handful of well-known horror-centric directors exist today and “well-known” can be argued given that many mainstream audiences may not recognize the likes of Xavier Gens or Ti West offhand (though they may have seen some of their movies). Arguably, the biggest name in horror currently is James Wan, the man responsible for sparking one of the biggest and most popular horror franchises today. With movies like “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Dead Silence” under his belt, he has proven himself, despite his critics, as one of the most stylish and interesting horror directors working today, yet his latest, “The Conjuring,” feels lackluster. The frights from his previous films are all but lost here and all ingenuity has dissipated. You’ve seen this movie dozens of times over and even Wan can’t do enough to reinvigorate old clichés.

This supposedly true story takes place in the late 60s and follows a team of husband and wife demon hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). They’re the same folks who tackled the infamous Amityville Horror hauntings (which should give you a good indication of whether or not this is actually real), but this time they’re investigating a possible demonic entity in the household of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who have just moved into a new farmhouse with a dark history along with their five girls, Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Cynthia (Mackenzie Foy), Christine (Joey King) and April (Kyla Deaver).

Lights are flickering on and off, birds are inexplicably crashing into their windows, televisions go static, loud noises go bump in the night and doors are creaking open all by themselves. And I mean lots of doors. I’m fairly certain that if we counted the number of creaking doors opened by an unseen entity,” “The Conjuring” would set the record. This tactic is indicative of the film as a whole: it has nothing new to present. It relies so heavily on obvious horror movie tropes that it never finds its own identity and, aside from a few effective moments that come forth through a game called “Hide and Clap,” it certainly never gets the heart racing. Unless you’ve never seen a horror movie before, you’ll quickly become aware of its tricks.

In fact, the film’s biggest asset doesn’t come from the horror atmosphere at all, but rather from its surprising focus on the characters, not unlike last year’s excellent “Sinister.” The build is slow and takes the time to develop them, not simply tossing them into a spooky house as fodder for jump scares. While they’re not necessarily interesting characters in and of themselves, it’s a welcome change of pace for a genre that regularly struggles to tell a meaningful story, which is mainly due to its skewed focus on things other than the people. Unfortunately, much of its attempts to build them into people we can care about, which come complete with soothing music and cheesy dialogue, are awkwardly wedged in between scenes of horrific nightmares, never segueing convincingly into and out of each other and throwing the whole tone off.

What “The Conjuring” boils down to is a talented and underrated horror director working with substandard material, though much of that talent undoubtedly stems from an outside source. So much of his style matches so well with frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell, who has written all of his horror outings, that many of his flaws shine through here. Take the finale of “Insidious” as an example. While the movie certainly had its issues, the ending took place in a surreal dreamlike state, almost like a cross between “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Silent Hill” video games. This gave Wan some room to breathe and interpret as he saw fit. The frightening visual environment he created was haunting and unforgettable. “The Conjuring” has no unique moments like it, nothing that allows Wan to flex his creative muscle.

It even falls prey to the same typical dumb mistakes so many characters make in these things. While the ghost obviously needs to stay with the characters no matter where they go for the purposes of storytelling, an attempt to escape still needs to be made. In “Insidious,” the characters left the house as soon as things got too weird, an ultimately fruitless decision, but welcome in a genre so heavy laden with idiotic decisions. Comparatively, “The Conjuring” writes the notion off with one quick line of dialogue, a metaphor about stepping in gum so thin, it comes off as laughable, especially when it comes from the so-called demonologist experts who should be able to explain it better.

When all is said and done, “The Conjuring” is a huge disappointment. Early buzz was positive and it was reportedly deemed so scary by the MPAA that despite its lack of language, sex or violence, it was given an R rating (though this was said by the film’s executive producer and could very well be a clever marketing ploy). But if anything, that’s only going to raise expectations on a film that is anything but terrifying. Horror newbies may get a kick out of it, but if you’re looking for something to truly unnerve you, “The Conjuring” isn’t it.

The Conjuring receives 2/5


White House Down

It was only three months ago that we sat through “Olympus Has Fallen,” the Gerard Butler action picture where terrorists took over the White House to make a future that matched their skewed ideologies. For all intents and purposes, this week’s “White House Down” is a remake of that film. It’s more humorous and it changes a few things around, but it’s essentially the same movie. A comparison of the two is inevitable and their different tones will split many audiences, half of who will favor the more violent, grittier nature of “Olympus Has Fallen” over the toned down cheese-fest presented here, but they both have their merits and work independently of each other, despite similar premises.

Cale (Channing Tatum) is an ex-soldier who served over in Afghanistan and is now working as a Capital police officer assigned to protecting Speaker of the House, Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). He’s divorced and has a young daughter named Emily (Joey King) who doesn’t particularly like him, but is stuck with him for the weekend. Despite her age, she’s a political junkie and blogger and is a big fan of the current President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), so she’s thrilled when Cale tells her that they’re going to the White House and he’s going to be interviewed for a Secret Service position. Unfortunatley, he’s quickly rejected by Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) due to his low school grades and unreliability, but before he even has time to process this, the White House is taken over by a group of mercenaries. He’s soon separated from his daughter, so he takes it upon himself to rescue not just her, but also the President and maybe even the country itself.

“White House Down” is a movie that’s so idiotic, it’s actually kind of enjoyable. That’s about the best outcome director Roland Emmerich, the man behind disasters like “10,000 BC,” “Godzilla” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” could have hoped for. His hackneyed approach to directing a movie, which includes his insistence on peppering humor throughout tonally dire moments, has made him a director to hate and with good reason. But given that the mostly straight faced and excessively violent “Olympus Has Fallen” has already delivered on the promise of a gritty White House invasion movie, Emmerich’s weaknesses become his strengths here. “White House Down” is so absurd, so monumentally silly, so preposterously ludicrous, that it proves itself to be wholly entertaining.

Every character in the film is a cliché or caricature and every moment is seemingly ripped from another movie. It mixes the action and humor of the “Lethal Weapon” movies with the concept and protagonist from “Die Hard” and the fearless, gung-ho president from “Air Force One.” One line, as the terrorists force Emily to tell Cale that they have a gun to her head, is even ripped shamelessly from that latter film. But in a weird way, combining all these elements, coupled with its drastic tonal shift from “Olympus Has Fallen,” gives it a unique identity, even as it (probably knowingly) rips dialogue from other movies.

President Sawyer is one of those presidents that doesn’t seem to have a single detractor, someone who makes everyone in the room smile when he walks in. He’s caring of others and puts them and the country above himself. He’s the type of guy who seems to constantly speak in “speech” and whose vocal tone can only be described as patriotic. The movie reinforces this by backing him with slowly swelling patriotic music nearly every time he begins to speak. It’s a manipulative ploy used by many amateurish filmmakers to manufacture the likability of their characters and it’s somewhat insulting to the discerning viewer, but in “White House Down,” it becomes just another dumb thing to laugh at.

And laughing is a big part of what makes the film so enjoyable. Despite the grave circumstances they’re in and the great loss of human life they’ve incurred during it, the film remains as goofy as can be. It’s not the intentionally placed jokes that work the most (though they do offer up the occasional guffaw); it’s the entire situation that is one can’t help but laugh at. A good example comes when the president loses his shoe in one scene and ends up in front of his closet in his room. Instead of grabbing the polished footwear one would expect a president to wear, he grabs his Air Jordans. While it admittedly makes sense given the situation (you’re going to need the flexibility of movement shoes like that will provide), it’s nevertheless endlessly amusing.

Even more amusing is the most worthless Secret Service agents ever assigned to guard a president. They hardly get any shots off at all as the terrorists pick them off one by one, tagging them all with one quick bullet to the head like they’re master arms men, that is unless they’re shooting at Cale or President Sawyer. Then it’s like they’ve been blindfolded and given a gun for the first time. This is standard action movie procedure, so it’s not so much a detriment to the film as it is a necessary element, yet the fact remains, this movie is blissfully stupid.

“White House Down” has stinted, inconsequential dialogue, complete with none-too-subtle foreshadowing bits (“It’s going to be a busy morning, boys,” the Speaker of the House says before everything goes to hell), and the CGI, particularly in the exterior scenes, is downright abysmal. Although fun, in terms of entertainment, it’s not quite as good as “Olympus Has Fallen.” The overrunning of the White House is a bit more believable here, but both are so outrageous that if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go all out. “White House Down” unfortunately plays it a bit closer to the chest than “Olympus Has Fallen,” no doubt to get that coveted PG-13 rating, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit, even if in this case the merit is that it’s so bad, it’s good.

White House Down receives 2.5/5


Ramona and Beezus

Well, what a surprise. In a summer that has been bombarded by bloated action flicks and unnecessary 3D extravaganzas, I almost forgot what it was like to see a nice, G rated charmer like Ramona and Beezus. Based off the hit books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona and Beezus hits all the right notes. It pleases the children in the audience while simultaneously reminding the adults what it’s like to be one.

Meet Ramona Quimby (Joey King). She’s nine years and three months old and contrary to what her sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) will tell you, she is not a pest. She’s actually a lively young child who spices up her everyday life with some imagination. Unfortunately, she does so at school, much to the dismay of her teacher Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh). It’s because of this that her latest report card suffers, though her parents have bigger problems. Her father Robert (John Corbett) has just been laid off due to downsizing and can’t find another job, which forces her mother Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) to abandon her job as housekeeper and find one that pays. However, her checks aren’t big enough to pay the bills and it begins to look like they may lose the house, but not if Ramona can do anything about it.

Ramona and Beezus is simply wonderful. Its hopes and aspirations lay only in the desire to make the audience smile and it succeeds. Joey King is simply adorable as Ramona and perfectly captures the essence of a kid. She runs and laughs and screams with her friend Howie (Jason Spevack). She loves her parents and, like all children, has that underlying fear that her parents may get a divorce. She has a pet she adores. She’s a nuisance in school, but not because she’s a rotten child. Rather it’s because she dreams of the impossible and builds whole worlds, many of which you get to see onscreen through cartoony digital effects that effectively show how her imagination works.

On top of her delightful performance and those actors I’ve mentioned above, you also have the impeccably handsome Josh Duhamel and unbelievably cute Ginnifer Goodwin who play old high school sweethearts who are now all grown up and begin to rekindle their old flame. The cast is full of charming, likable people who are kind to each other and love each other unconditionally.

It’s a sweet movie to be sure, perhaps a little too sweet. The whole film teeters on the line of mushy sentimentality and at times crosses it. You get the feeling that this family exists in a world where happiness is the only emotion because, other than a few small moments, little else comes across. There are a few too many scenes that are forced to the point where it begins to feel manipulatively upbeat, like a late water fight scene that leads up to the cheesiest moment in the movie.

Still, the Quimbys are a loving family surrounded by loving friends and it’s hard not to root for them. Despite the title, the film is just as much about the rest of the characters as it is Ramona and Beezus and that’s where the strength of the film lies. It’s easy to relate to the titular characters because we’ve all been there as kids, but it’s nice to see everybody else fleshed out as well. Despite some schlock, you’ll see the genuine chemistry between Duhamel and Goodwin and you’ll feel the part of Robert that fears he may not land a new job and won’t be able to support his family. All of that is handled with care.

Ramona and Beezus is an absurdly cheerful movie that will undoubtedly move even the manliest of men. Everybody wants to receive a similar love and acceptance that the characters get in this movie and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two by the end.

Ramona and Beezus receives 3.5/5