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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


Young Adult

When director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody teamed up in 2007 for Juno, they struck gold. All of a sudden, their small independent movie was seeing a wide release and garnering a number of award nominations, including a nod for Best Picture at the Oscars. Since then, Reitman has directed the wonderful Up in the Air, another terrific movie that, similar to Juno, was met with critical acclaim and awards nominations. Cody, on the other hand, moved onto Jennifer’s Body, a lackluster (if even a bit underrated) horror comedy that tried far too hard to capture that Juno magic. Now she is back with a new script and working with the director that made her somebody. The end result is Young Adult, an occasionally funny, sometimes clever, but all around mediocre vehicle for Charlize Theron in the most unlikable role she’s ever been in. And she was in Monster. Think about that.

In the film, Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer who is in the process of writing the last book in a popular young adult series. Her draft is due soon, but she has barely begun to write it. This is due to her infatuation with an old fling, Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson. The problem is he’s married and he’s about to have a baby. She knows this thanks to the invitation she was sent to join him and his wife in their celebration, but she doesn’t care. She plans on breaking them up and taking him for herself.

Mavis is a terrible person. There’s no getting around it. Some may argue that as one of the film’s strengths. Some will see deep meaning in her actions and words. They’ll see some statement on humanity and desperation, but they’ll be reaching. Not all movies have likable characters, but those movies don’t necessarily try to make you like them. Young Adult does. You’re supposed to laugh at her excess, her rudeness, her vulgarity, but it’s very hard to do so. She is trying to break up a perfectly happy marriage, one where a kid is on the way, for her own selfish gain. She has one friend in the small town she grew up in, Matt, played by Patton Oswalt, who she treats terribly, despite the fact that years ago he was brutally beaten and left to die by a group of people who just happened to think he was gay. She’s also a hypocrite, telling Matt at one point to stop living in the past and dwelling on his terrible event, despite the entire fact that she’s back in her hometown solely because she wants so badly to be with her high school boyfriend, unable to follow her own advice.

Young Adult may send mixed messages about how we are supposed to approach this character, but it does show hints of intelligence. Mavis, as terrible as she is, is hard to take seriously. She’s a writer of those silly tween novels and she treats her life like one. She has this fantasy that she will ride off into the sunset with Buddy and live happily ever after. She has spent her entire career building unrealistic fantasies that she’s now starting to believe in them. When she has a late movie speech about how Buddy is her moon and stars, it’s not cheesy and laughable like it would be in a different film. It’s actually kind of brilliant.

The relationship between Mavis and Matt also takes some nice unexpected turns and the chemistry between the two actors is surprisingly good. Oswalt in particular plays well in another quirky role, but after starring in the underseen, but absolutely fantastic Big Fan, one can’t help but want more for him. Still, he’s good enough to make this movie watchable, though not enough to make up for its shortcomings. There are some great moments in Young Adult that hint at a great movie hidden somewhere in it. It’s just a shame Cody and Reitman couldn’t find it.

Young Adult receives 2.5/5



Many people consider the horror genre the lowliest form of cinema. Their inherent focus on death can be off-putting and as time has gone on, they have gotten more and more grotesque. To not enjoy the genre is, at this point, understandable. That’s why, as a critic, I’m supposed to scoff at torture porn movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede. And I do. But one film I believe is unfairly lumped in with those films is Saw. The sequels are another matter (although some, like number six, at least manage to provide interesting commentary), but the first film was original and thought provoking and, contrary to popular belief, didn’t concentrate on a large cast of no names getting mangled by overcomplicated contraptions. It was a tight psychological thriller with two skillfully developed main characters who became more nuanced as it went on (though it was by no means perfect). The duo behind that movie, Leigh Whannell and James Wan, have been on my radar ever since that film. They are a force to be reckoned with in the horror community, especially after their severely underrated 2007 film, Dead Silence. Their newest, Insidious, isn’t quite as good as those two films, but given the state of horror these days, it’s still worth a look.

Husband and wife Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have just moved into a new house. They haven’t quite finished unpacking yet and their days are hectic. Josh works hard during the day while Renai tries to balance out the care of her three children with composing piano music. Suddenly, however, their oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) sadly and unexplainably falls into a coma. Three months pass and he still isn’t awake, but Renai is beginning to hear and see things in the house and she thinks his coma might have been brought on by something not of this realm.

Insidious is your typical haunted house story. Things go bump in the night, faint apparitions appear behind thinly veiled bed canopies and doors creak open and close. Those are only a few of the sub-genre’s tried and true tricks the film borrows. It’s most certainly not original, but it excels in a few key areas and manages to frighten on more than one occasion, particularly in the first act.

The opening scenes perfectly set the tone for the film and James Wan’s visual style is eerie without being overbearing, employing black and white footage in the opening credits montage and canted camera angles to show that something is not right in the house. He has a visual eye for the macabre. Even when things seem normal, you get a sense something unseen is close by. It’s an effect that is not easy to pull off, but Wan does it here.

These early moments promise a slow building ghost movie, similar to something like 1980’s effective chiller, The Changeling, and this is when it works best. Ghosts are left hidden or at quick glimpses and its use of shadows keeps you on the edge of year seat, aware that something could be hidden beneath the shroud of darkness. It’s about what you don’t see, which makes it all the more frightening. Unfortunately, this tight, focused ghost movie becomes more and more ridiculous, and even occasionally laughable, as it goes on. The unsettling feeling present in the early scenes all but vanishes, leaving you only with predictable jump scares as it spirals down the same problematic pathway many horror movies do. As the ghosts become more prominent and the filmmakers put them front and center, it becomes decidedly less scary, stripping away whatever terrifying design your imagination has conjured up and replacing it with something that, frankly, looks kind of stupid.

Insidious, despite its many problems, is anchored by two terrific performances from two accomplished actors and it manages to redeem itself in the last ten minutes or so in a climax that mixes the dreamlike visuals of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the exploration of a survival horror video game like Silent Hill. In the end, Insidious squanders its opportunity to become a truly scary movie, but a few inspired moments and effective frights make it a fun diversion nonetheless.

Insidious receives 3/5


Morning Glory

As far as satirical films on the news media go, nothing beats Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network, a movie about sensationalism and how we as a society eat it up. In that picture, a man named Howard Beale announced his plan to kill himself on the air and interest in the television station shot up. As he stood in front of a giant audience, mentally ill from the emotional torment of losing his job, nobody stepped in to stop him. The popularity meant ratings and nobody batted an eye at what they were doing to the man. While not as in-depth, interesting or clever as that film, Morning Glory explores similar sensationalist territory while upping the comedy and giving us a few fantastic performances.

Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) lives in New Jersey. She’s a producer at a small television station on the local morning news show. Things seem to be going fine until she is suddenly fired, finding herself frantically searching for a new job. After many e-mails and phone calls, she finally lands a gig at IBS as executive producer of their daily morning news show, Day Break. Their ratings are suffering and her new boss hopes she will be able to raise them. So she sets out to do just that, though she’ll have to get through her testy anchors Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) first.

Morning Glory is a good movie; there’s no questioning that. It’s funny, it’s sweet and it has something to say, featuring a commentary on public consumption and how we are more drawn to fluff than news that matters. But it could have been so much more. There’s a great movie hidden here somewhere, but it loses itself at certain points along the proverbial line.

Where the movie succeeds is in Becky. She’s a strong, smart, independent woman who is determined to earn the respect of those around her and bring the ratings of Day Break out of the gutter. It’s a character we don’t see much in movies these days. In a cinematic world where women are normally the helpless ones in peril or treated like an object, it was a breath of fresh air. However, it seems there can’t be a woman onscreen who inhabits these personality traits because she is quickly given a sexual interest and the film falls into the same romantic comedy routine as so many others.

But luckily, it never gets too weighed down by it. Every time it looks like the writers are going to force Becky to succumb to the pressures of society, it quickly switches gears and shows just how tough she can be. Her first order of duty when she arrives at the studio is to fire one of her anchors for the rude, obnoxious oaf he is and begin to pursue a new one in the form of Mike, a seasoned anchor veteran who touts his numerous awards and refuses to do any piece on something he doesn’t consider newsworthy, which is pretty much anything.

He’s a pompous, sarcastic man with a thick shell that Becky has to break and, even though it’s as predictable as the presence of beer at a sporting event, it’s a testament to her character that she can and does. Although she finds love, she doesn’t abandon her career for it. I suspect powerful women all across the country will find something to like in her and it doesn’t hurt that the radiant Ms. McAdams is in those shoes.

There’s a great supporting cast in Morning Glory that includes Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum and a hilarious cameo from 50 Cent, but it’s the script that really shines. It’s rare to find a movie this funny, intelligent and timely that also makes a valid point about the news industry. It may be a more comedic, less important version of Network, but Morning Glory is entertaining all the same.

Morning Glory receives 3.5/5


The A-Team

I’m an 80’s child. I grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters. I know every word to the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” I lived and breathed the “Super Mario Brothers” video game. But some things simply came before my time, namely “The A-Team” whose series was wrapping up by the time I emerged from the womb. Having never seen an episode, I don’t have much to compare it to, but the 2010 movie adaptation is nevertheless tons of fun.

The A-Team follows a group of Army Rangers who are wrongfully accused of a crime and put in prison, but quickly break out only to find themselves on the run to clear their names. There’s Hannibal (Liam Neeson), the fearless leader, Face (Bradley Cooper), the reckless womanizer, Murdock (Sharlto Copley), the mentally unstable pilot, and B.A. (Quinton Jackson), the tough looking pacifist who takes a vow of peace after his wrongful imprisonment.

Truth be told, it’s all rather confusing. There’s a prominent CIA figure named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) who may not be who he claims, the beautiful Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) who has had a romantic history with Face and is tracking him down, a group of black op mercenaries who are after the same thing as the A-team, and General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) who is the only person able to legitimize the group’s story and clear their names, but dies unexpectedly in an explosion. It’s another one of those movies where the story is not so much incoherent, but insubstantial. It exists solely as a string of flimsy reasons to get the team to the next wild action scene.

And wild they are. Too many action movies feel generic and outdated, but I saw the team do things here that I’ve never seen before, like fly a tank. Yeah, they fly a tank. It’s an action scene that is clearly over-the-top and unbelievable, but you won’t care because that’s the movie’s goal. It balances its somewhat realistic feeling with its crazy stunts almost perfectly. You’ll always anticipate what is coming next, but you'll never find yourself disappointed. It continually tops itself with more and more ludicrous events at every turn.

It seems pointless to say because it should be readily apparent by now, but this picture rarely takes itself seriously and when it does, well, those are the parts that don’t work out too well. The romance between Face and Charisa works only in the end and the speech from Hannibal on “fighting for what you believe in” is unnecessary. But these are slight moments in an otherwise outrageous movie.

The film’s success comes from many things, but it’s clear that much of it comes not only from the frantic, stylized direction from Joe Carnahan, but also from the terrific performances from the cast. Along with this and Taken, Liam Neeson has proven himself as an awesome action star, Copley shows he’s not a one hit wonder after District 9 and provides most of the film’s many laughs, and Bradley Cooper is charmingly brass as Face. The sole weak point of the group is Jackson, a UFC fighter, whose small previous film roles have not prepared him to carry this character. He’s not terrible, but his inexperience shows.

With a rocking soundtrack and outlandish action scenes, The A-Team emits fun for two hours straight. It may not be for everybody and I’m well aware that many will walk out feeling underwhelmed, but I found it to be a real standout in what has so far been a mediocre year for action movies.

The A-Team receives 4/5