Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Conjuring: Hitchcock Would Be Proud

Hitchcock was first.  He was the one who essentially defined the horror genre.  He did it with pizzazz and with class.  His films were not bloody or gruesome or filled with foul language or nudity, they were filled with great characters, clever plots, and brilliant pacing.  And they were damn scary.  Then George A. Romero and John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven all entered the picture adding their own distinct brand of horror to Hollywood, each a little more violent than the last.  Soon, the nobility of Horror was becoming less and less distinguished.  Horror became buckets of blood and teenagers getting cut down after either having sex or running upstairs when they really shouldn't be.  Horror became the joke of Hollywood.  Never taken too seriously, and reproduced like little clones with minor defects that separate each other.  Then came the trump card (and I hate to say this) in M. Night Shyamalan.  Yes, he's lost all respect and credibility today, but when he released The Sixth Sense, the world of horror was re-examined by everyone.  Horror was no longer a joke.  Horror could be subtle.  It could be smart.  And it could be damn scary once again.  I personally think that his best film, and still one of the scariest movies ever made is Signs, but I know those who would disagree.  Shyamalan was our shot at the resurgence of good horror, but Hollywood, unfortuately, got the better of him and that tiny light at the end of the tunnel fizzled out.  But, he wasn't our last hope.

A little cheaply made film produced in 2004 came out entitled Saw.  It was different from the horror muck clogging the theaters at the time.  It was smart.  It was engaging.  It was pretty freaky.  And it was a great film.  It was made for almost no money and it spawned a gaggle of [terrible] sequels making studios tons and tons of money and giving a name to new director, James Wan.  After separating himself from his Saw baby and handing sequels 2-19 over to someone else, Wan was given free reign to direct other films.  His next film, while a respectable effort, was essentially a failure.  Dead Silence had a great, even scary premise but was poorly executed and miscast.  Wan could've easily been written off, but even though Dead Silence was not the horror hit of the year, it caught the attention of horror movie buffs around in it's homage to the older-style of horror filmmaking.  It wasn't overly violent or gory, but it had an aura of creepiness around it.  The creepiness, however, didn't end up giving the audience much of a payoff at the end.  Finally came Insidious, a complete and total throwback to the heyday of horror.  It drew heavily from the great horror films of the 60s and 80s, like Poltergeist and It.  It was able to scare the living crap out of everyone and still remain a PG-13 film that anyone could watch.  Yes, there were moments of definite cheese, but on the whole, if you were lucky enough to see Insidious in theaters, chances are you were significantly scared.

Now, with The Conjuring under his belt, it appears that James Wan is the savior of horror that everyone thought Shyamalan would be.  Let me begin by saying this: The Conjuring is a very scary film.  I love horror, I've seen many films, I know what to look out for and what to expect and it's fairly difficult to scare me, especially make me jump.  The Conjuring, while still being a definite throwback to Hitchcock faire, was able to defy all expectation and scare the bejesus out of me.  I'll put it this way: the film is rated R.  A significant amount of bad shit has to happen in a film to earn an R rating.  This one is rated R for literally being too scary.  There is no profanity, no blood, no gore, no nudity, nothing.  My 88-year-old grandmother could handle this movie if it weren't for the blood-curdling screams around her that might possibly send her frail heart launching out of her chest.  That sentence right there was more violent than The Conjuring, but it's so damn scary and outright disturbing that the MPAA had to deem it R.

The Conjuring tells the *cough* true *cough* story of Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), two paranormal investigators hired by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) in order to rid their home and family of the malicious spirits haunting the house.  The build up is slow, as it should be, giving us backstory on the Warrens as well as the Perron family.  We get subtle noises and bumps in the night that build towards shifting shadows, to bodies being thrashed about to the entities showing themselves entirely.  Wan's pacing is perfect. He establishes character, something most horror writers or directors have any interest wasting time doing.  There are so many characters in the film that each one ends up being haunted differently.  We care about each one of them and fear for their safety during each night.  The first hour is essentially filled with creepy music and faint noises, while the last forty-five go balls deep in to scaretown and it doesn't let up until the credits roll.  You'll walk out of the theater stiff from how tensed up you get watching the film.

There was a lot of research done in preparation of the film and Wan personally took it upon himself to make the film as "accurate" as possible.  Now, I'm not going to say what's true and what's not, because by saying it is a completely true story would mean for us to accept that evil forces are around and can take hold of us at any time.  Most people choose not to believe it, but some do.  Wan spent countless hours interviewing the actual family involved in the hauntings, hoping to make everything in the film as real as possible. Wilson and Fermiga are fantastic as the doubting Warrens who, over time, start to realize that the trouble may, in fact, be real.  Lili Taylor also holds her own as the mother who the spirits tend to like fucking with the most.  And what's great about Wan's style of directing is that he's able to scare us with plausible situations because these characters are real.  When something frightening happens, it very well could be happening in our own home.  He's smart in his execution as well.  He's not going for the cheap jump-scare with a loud noise or something popping up behind a mirror (though that isn't to say these moments aren't in the film), but the scares come organically.  They build on one another until it's hard to even breathe because anything could happen at any moment. 

The Conjuring is by far one of the scariest movies I've seen in recent memory, as well as one of the smartest.  It's the best movie of the summer so far and it's sitting in contention to be the best.  Anyone who loves to go to the theater and get scared will have a blast with this film.  Even those who are weary of horror films because of the amount of gore guaranteed to be present shouldn't worry.  There's nothing to be grossed out about.  It's just a good, old-fashioned fun at the movies that will be sure to scare the pants off of you.  I can't wait to see what James Wan has in store for horror in the years to come.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim: Poor Asia, Targets of Huge Aliens Once More

In Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, Will Smith plays a fighter pilot who, in a previous battle with aliens, lost his best friend, or "brother", if you will and must now exact revenge as part of saving planet Earth.  Jeff Goldblum plays a quirky smart guy that no one will really listen to, but somehow figures out how to tap into the brain (virus-style) and learn the inner most secrets of the aliens in order to effectively defeat them.  He is constantly right about most things and not listened to by, none other than Bill Pullman- a veteran fighter who is now in a position of leadership.  He tries to prepare those around him for the inevitable while still trying to fight from his desk.  But, once the shit hits the proverbial fan, he stands atop the machine he's about to fight in, gives a dramatic speech, hops in a fighter plane and personally engages in battle with the aliens.  Randy Quaid plays a hot-headed drunk, whose relationship with his son is broken, and the only way he can save face is by sacrificing himself at the end by blowing up the ship and ending the alien wars.

Conversely, in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day, Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) plays the pilot of a large mechanical man dubbed a Jaeger who, in a previous battle with aliens, lost his brother, or "best friend", if you will, and must now exact revenge as part of saving planet Earth.  Charlie Day (Always Sunny) plays the quirky smart guy that no one will really listen to, but somehow figures out how to tap into the brain (mindmeld-style) and learn the inner most secrets of the aliens in order to effectively defeat them.  He is constantly right about most things and not listened to by, none other than Idris Elba - a veteran fighter who is now in a position of leadership.  He tries to prepare those around him for the inevitable while still trying to fight from his desk.  But, once the shit hits the proverbial fan, he stands atop the machine he's about to fight in, gives a dramatic speech, hops in the Jaeger and personally engages in battle with the aliens.  Robert Kazinsky plays a hot-headed ego-drunk, whose relationship with his father is broken, and the only way he can save face is by [possibly] sacrificing himself at the end by [doing something] and [maybe] ending the alien wars.

Pacific Rim IS Independence Day.  It is.  It's the same film, but without great characters, without well-written dialogue, and without any of the heart.  Sure, I'll admit Pacific Rim totally annihilates ID4 in visual effects.  Pacific Rim is stunning to see.  As you watch it, it honestly seems like the most expensive movie in existence.  But, what ID4 does better is that it provided us with characters that we actually care about and want to see succeed.  There are many intricate relationships between each character and we are deeply invested in each one.  If even one of these people are put in harm's way, we worry.  When it looks like Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum won't make it out, our hearts ache for them and their loved ones (especially Judd Hirsch).  When the battle between fighter pilots and aliens seems doomed and Bill Pullman calls out "doesn't anyone have any missiles left?" and we hear that old familiar Russell Case voice "Sorry I'm late, Mr. President!" we know he's about to fly in and save that day!  And when he flies into the ship, mocking the aliens the entire way, it's heartbreaking to know he finally made his children proud because HE'S the one that gets to save the world.  There's none of that in Pacific Rim.  There's not a single character you latch on to that you genuinely care if they live or die.  By the first twenty minutes of the film, if you haven't already figured it out, who lives or who dies, then you haven't seen that many movies.

What's wrong with these big-budget alien/monster movies today is that filmmakers think that what the audience wants to see is an eye-candy hero.  It's not true.  The pretty boy hero is something that, I believe, keeps most people away.  No one saw either Taylor Kitch disaster Battleship or John Carter.  No one cared about the Clash or Wrath of the Titans with Sam Worthington.  It's the reason the Taken movies have done so well.  People want to see the everyman take matters into their own hands.  I mean, the heroes in Independence Day are Will Smith (who, back then was nothing close to a sex symbol) and freaking Jeff Goldblum!  Goldblum!  Not once does anyone in the movie take their shirt off to expose ripped abs.  When these stale, emotionless pretty boys engage in epic battles, I lose interest because I just do not care if they make it back or not.  And, come on, if you're going to give your character a motivational speech, at least try not to draw parallels to the greatest motivational speech of all time!

Visually, however, it is certainly a sight to see.  Guillermo Del Toro has a gift as a director and one I can recognize even through a film like this.  He's a visionary that will always deliver on the action, the creativity of the creatures, and the awe-inspiring visual moments of his films.  However, he's not much of a writer, especially when it comes to character development and dialogue.  He's a lot like George Lucas in that way.  Put him behind the camera and gold will come out.  Allow him to write his stories and the film will suffer (obviously we're not speaking of Pan's Labyrinth).  But, he's always had a way with the visual.  In his Hellboy films, the most interesting parts were when we saw creatures and monsters that we'd never seen before.  Not so much the story or the characters or what they were saying, but we wanted to watch what happened next.  Much like Pacific Rim.  I was visually engaged and when there was a battle sequence I was on the edge of my seat.  I studied the monsters that rose out of the sea, noticing the detail of how different each one was and how much thought and commitment Del Toro put into each one.  The Jaegers however... are a different story.  They are supposed to have all of these different fighting techniques and weapons hidden among them, yet each one began a battle punching the monsters.  Why waste time doing that if you have a hidden sword that can easily slice them in half or a plasma blaster that YOU KNOW is going to take them down the quickest and cause minimal damage.  It's like in Power Rangers when they all came together with the mega-zord and fought whatever strange large creature, then when it looked bleak, they pulled out the magical sword of justice (or whatever the hell it was) and in one fell swoop ended the battle.  It's like: why didn't you do that in the first place?!

I feel like I'm being overly harsh on Pacific Rim, and maybe I am.  But, my expectations were higher on this one.  This was supposed to be the monster movie to end all monster movies.  It was supposed to be bigger in scale, and smarter in brain.  But, it's not.  While it might be the most stunning monster movie ever to see (and I HIGHLY recommend seeing this in theaters, do not wait for blu-ray), it just didn't have the smarts to go with it.  It was done by a George Lucas.  Not a Spielberg.  Had it been handled by a Spielberg, it would've had everything and you can damn sure assume more time would've been spent so that we gave at least one shit about one character.  Pacific Rim is its own entity.  It's not as bad as Battleship or Transformers, but it's not as good as Independence Day  or Armageddon.  Even in Armageddon (a film directed by Michael Bay, mind you), when Bruce Willis sacrifices himself so that Affleck can be with his daughter, there isn't a dry eye in the house.  Notice too who the hero is in that film... not a pretty boy.  Pacific Rim is at the heart of Summer moviedom.  It is incredibly entertaining, and while you care about HOW the characters are going to stop these things from ending life on Earth as we know it... you just don't care WHO is going to do it.

Pacific Rim: C
Independence Day: A+

As an added bonus for making it this far... here is the greatest speech in the history of film:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Lone Ranger: Hi-Ho Silver!

Jerry Bruckheimer is having a tough time these days.  He's picking movies that are supposed to be making billions worldwide on a grand scale that people enjoy, then immediately forget.  Now, he's in a bit of trouble.  Trying to recoup $800 million in expenses from a remake of a show that was on in the 40s and 50s.  Not exactly a summer winner by far.  I still remember when he was putting out great movies like Bad Boys, The Rock and Enemy of the State.  Fun, yet smart and very entertaining fare for moviegoers.  Now, it's him trying to find the next Pirates.  While The Lone Ranger is certainly no Pirates of the Caribbean, it definitely doesn't deserve the harshly negative reviews it has been getting.

Written by Pirates scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, The Lone Ranger chronicles the life of John Reid, his origins in becoming said Lone Ranger, his meeting and eventual friendship with oddball indian Tonto and saving the town from a couple of baddies.  While the movie is obviously too long, the plot is a fun ride.  John, his brother Dan and a few Texas Rangers are sent out to capture known killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), Butch and his men kill everyone save for John.  Tonto discovers a wounded John, saves him and the two partner up to seek revenge on Butch.  There's a ton of subplots however that involve building a railroad through Cherokee land, broken white and indian treaties, etc. etc.  It can become a tad convoluted (like most of Elliot and Rossio's scripts are-- did you see the third Pirates??), but overall it's still pretty fun.  What the epic duo do best in their writing, along with collaborator and director Gore Verbinski, is know how to take a big budget action film, ripe with hardcore violent situations, and still make it fun.  There are a lot of funny moments in the film, some a little too silly to be appropriate, but it's in their humor a good script is derived.

I think what has happened here, however, is that The Lone Ranger just isn't a marketable movie.  Just as John Carter or Prince of Persia fell by the wayside, none of those films really appeal to the masses.  John Carter was about Mars starring people no one really liked.  Prince was a period piece that Jake Gyllenhaal wasn't strong enough to draw in the crowd.  Now, with Ranger you do have a big name attached in Johnny Depp, but as Tonto, he tends to draw back to his weird schticky Captain Jack Sparrow quirk a little too heavily and the majority of audiences are a mite tired of it.  I, personally, still enjoy watching Depp act weird and crazy, and I get a big kick out of it.  But, the masses are looking for something fresh, something new, something different from Depp.  I also believe that a big-budget western film is hard to sell in any market.  Westerns are a very niche genre and one that a lot of people aren't fans of.  So, to revive a story from the late 40s and market it towards audiences from ages 12-30 that most aren't even familiar with in the first place or have any clue who The Lone Ranger actually was... it was bound to fail from the beginning.  Back that with bad reviews and, my friends, you've got a flop on your hands.

Normally, this would be a movie I avoid altogether.  Much like Prince of Persia or John Carter, films like those aren't ones I rush out to see when Summer arrives.  However, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting William Fichtner (seriously one of the greatest character actors of our time) and he talked of how much fun he had shooting the film.  He also gave the film the Fichtner seal of approval.  This was good enough for me.  I've always been a fan of his work, and with him playing the villain, I was sold.  And while he probably is the best part of the movie (his talent far exceeds films like this) the rest of the cast wasn't terrible either.  Armie Hammer played the character a little too rigid and a lot of the silliness stems from him, but he's a decent Lone Ranger choice.  Johnny Depp is good for a few laughs.  Tom Wilkinson is always a joy to watch.  And Helena Bonham Carter serves her purpose, like everything else she's been in.  But, there was just something about the movie that didn't make it feel like a whole.  It's like the writers watched every episode of the TV series and tried to combine two or three seasons worth of plot into one overly long film.

But, trust me when I say this: it's not as bad as you keep hearing.  If you find yourself in a theater watching it, just know that you WILL be entertained.  Yes, you will laugh at some bad dialogue.  Yes, you will scoff at some ridiculously dumb moments.  But, on the whole you won't be leaving as angry as you think you might.  It's not as big of a bomb as Wild Wild West was back in '99, but it's not the summer's saving grace as Bruckheimer was hoping for.  It's the epitome of summer wrapped in a wet blanket.  It's big, it's loud, it's dumb, but it's also a lot of fun.