Dive Deep (Aquaman, 2018)

Aquaman_posterSure, you know Aquaman can swim fast, talk to fish and punch hard. But what do you really know?

This holiday season, we have the full story of the savior of the seas.  Born of a lighthouse keeper from the surface world and the Princess of Atlantis, Arthur Curry has long dealt with the heartbreak of the death of his mother, believing it really to be his fault.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!! when his half brother Orm sets his sites on uniting the kingdoms of Atlantis and destroying the surface world, the princess Mera seeks the aid of Arthur, who has avoided his Atlantean heritage.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!! See, there is a magical trident that Aquaman will need to defeat his half brother, so he and Mera go on a big time treasure hunt.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!! There is a guy called Black Manta who wants revenge on Arthur!

BUT THA- Oh, you get the idea.  They have packed a ton of stuff into this film, making it a bit of a mess. It is such a busy film full of story ideas it can make you wonder if any of those stories could have better room to breath in their own film.  However, one gets the sense that they had multiple assignments with this film. They had to fill in the back story not just of Arthur, but of Mera, Orm, Atlantis and a magical trident.

And yet, the film is a lot of fun.  The whole little side story in which Arthur and Mera are trying to find the trident National Treasure style is fun excitement.  And the film sets up a simple but good message for Aquaman to learn.  The effects are really good, which is important, because the entire sense of design depends on it.

The real highlight of the film is Atlantis. It is a lush and colorful undersea kingdom.  The use of undersea life in the designs of their vehicles and architecture is wondrous. This is DC film embraces the whimsy of it’s conceit to give a unique corner of the DCEU. There is also a real attention to small detail in all the underwater sequences that make is easy to forget people don’t breath or talk underwater. We get Aquaman in his traditional outfit and you know what? It looks great.

But it is not just the design and effects that the film has going for it. Now, Mamoa has limited acting range…but the filmmakers have filled the movie with a cast that keeps this from being an issue. He can do his brash and confident guy thing, because he is supported by top notch talent like Temuera Morrison, Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson. Wilson really carries a lot in the relationship between Orm and Arthur. He somehow manages to give a heart to a megalomaniacal maniac king. His hatred of Arthur is in a misguided blame for the loss of their mother, and Wilson sells this well.

And then there is James Wan. Wan is without a doubt one of the strongest directors in action films today. Even his giant action scenes are easy to follow. He balances sequences with multiple simultaneous leads exceptionally well (such as when Arthur and Mera become separated and have their own individual fights).

Aquaman manages to overcome a lot of odds, being far more entertaining than the elements ought to allow. So, in spite of a busy storyline, Aquaman is a rollicking fun adventure.

Haunted People Chapter 2 (Insidious Chapter 2, 2013)

Insidious_Chapter_2_PosterIn the first film, it was established that part of what made young Dalton such an easy target was that his father had a similar experience with the same spirit as a boy.  Opening in the first film’s tragic aftermath, Insidious Chapter 2 jumps back to that story.

Younger Elise is helping Lorraine save her young son Josh from a frightening spiritual attack.  Here we are introduced to an associate of Elise’s named Carl. When the film picks back up in the present, Carl comes in to try and help the family finish what was started in the first film and save Josh.

 

 

The film gives us more background into the old woman (who turns out to not be a woman, but a serial killer who killed at the behest of his mother).  The ghosts and spirits are as visually striking as in the first film. The same year he released this film, he released the Conjuring.  Wan really knows what he is doing with his modernized ghost stories.  I really enjoy his sense of style and his commitment to the realities of his haunted cinematic worlds.  And again, the sound design is every bit as powerful in Chapter 2 as it was in the first film.

Chapter 2 flows pretty organically from the original film, avoiding a feel of being a tacked on sequel.  Wan is a solidly dependable horror creator, giving real life to a genre of horror that was somewhat stale.

Haunted People Chapter One (Insidious, 2010)

Insidious_PosterDirector James Wan made his name in horror with Saw, which launched a thousand torture themed horror films, though often made by less skilled people.  But in 2009, Wan found himself creating a more unique form of horror.  He accomplished this be exploring an older school of fright, the supernatural thriller.

Insidious tells the story of a young family, headed by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne.  Rose’s Renai is staying home with their young baby and she is the first to notice strange occurrences.  But they start to get more frightening, to the point of seeing things and hearing aggressive and angry voices. Josh (Wilson) is struggling at work, and coming home late, all the while thinking his wife is just unnerved by the new house.  But when their son Dalton falls into a coma, things get more desperate.  Josh’s mother steps in to help the couple, but she quickly comes to believe Renai.  They call in help from an old friend of the mothers, Elise.  Elise is a known psychic and has a paranormal support team.

It is revealed that the house is not haunted, rather Dalton is.  Dalton is able to astrally project himself.  Elise explains he has been likely able to do this so long, that it never scared him.  However, it leaves his physical body available and other spirits are trying to get back to his body by keeping Dalton from returning.

The film is visually striking, with a beautiful combination of old school gothic horror and modern scary monsters.  The primary two spirits attacking Dalton are an old woman with a long black dress and veil and an old school gargoyle type of demon who looks truly ghoulish.

Along with the visual designs of the ghosts and demons, the real star of the film is the sound design.  Much like Hitchcock, Wan gets how important timing of stings and the volume of your surroundings can play in frights.  The use of sound is near perfect in this film, with noises that can be emotionally unnerving.

The film has a good cast.  Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson provide some good humor to lighten the intense atmosphere, but not at the expense of seeming competent.  Wilson and Byrne are very sympathetic as the couple.  The standout is Lin Shaye. She has a warmth and kindness, but also a strength.  This is one of her best roles (and no surprise they keep bringing her back to the films).

Insidious is a solidly made modern horror film that pays homage to classic horror and ghost stories.

Home Repairs (The Conjuring, 2013)

the_Conjuring_PosterEd and Lorraine Warren are semi-famous paranormal investigators.  They are devout Catholics and very serious about their work.  But they were most prominent in the 70’s and 80’s. Ed actually passed away in 2006, but his wife has carried on their work.  They were one of many investigators of the home of Amityville Horror fame.  James Wan thought their work would make for an interesting horror film.

The Conjuring is based on the case of the Perron Family.  They moved into a home in Rhode Island, only to find themselves facing something very dark.  The Warrens come in to investigate and discover the family is being tormented by a demonic force, specifically the spirit of a long dead witch.  Lorraine has visions of the dead, while Ed and his crew of investigators observe the house.

The Conjuring is very moody and stylized.  You feel compassion for this family in the grips of true horror.  The Warrens are kind and gentle with the family, but firm with the spirits of the house.  Of course, the film versions of Ed and Lorraine are a bit more glamorous, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  And frankly, they seem a little less…unhinged, than the real Ed and Lorraine do in some of the video footage I have seen.

The atmosphere is truly creepy, with many scares throughout the film.  But the reason it is so effective in it’s tension is how engaging all the performers are.  Wan has produced a solid thriller with the Conjuring.  It is interesting to see Wan move from the gore soaked slasher territory of Saw to the more spiritual based (and largely traditional) approach to horror. While the visuals are modern, they manage to evoke the old school haunted house horror films of a bygone era.

I Watches the Watchmen (Watchmen, 2009)

untitledHonestly, I was feeling slightly hesitant bout seeing this film.  For one, the mini-series has a longstanding reputation as being “UN-filmable”due to it’s dense and complex structure.  Certain “commentators” and critics had me wondering if I was about to see a movie that was setting new standards in levels of sex and gore.

Seventies Italian Giallo filmmakers have nothing to fear. Countless films crossed these lines long before Watchmen, and so as a film, Watchmen covers no new territory there, nor is it a sign of sinking depravity.

Overall, the film was one I really did enjoy.  The visual look of the film is stylish, though not as hyper stylish as, say, Sin City or the Spirit.  But it is a visual feast.  It is interesting, because while the setting is often dark and grimy, the colors still seem vibrant.

The opening ten minutes are flat out brilliant, beginning with the murder that kicks off the mystery the forms the groundwork of the story.  The credits are beautifully framed, they are like living photographs that give us a quick primer for the alternate timeline, from the rise of the masked hero to the present.

From there we jump into character introductions, following the one remaining masked vigilante, Rorschach.    As personified by Jackie Earl Haley, Rorschach comes to life.  Rorschach is admittedly a troublesome character.  He’s a bigoted sociopath, yet, strangely compelling in his black and white view.  The appeal of heroes that see in black and white is easy to understand.  The willingness to step forward and fight a perceived evil without compromise sounds noble.  But Rorschach is the other side of black and white thinking.  People are rarely so easily divisible between all good and all evil (in spite of the right and left’s desire to cast anyone who disagrees with them in the role of great evil).  And Rorschach is a reflection of the path blind devotion to a black and white view of justice can take.  Haley still manages to give him moments where you are compelled to root for him, or even feel sorrow for him.

The Comedian, whose death is the catalyst of the story, is a heartless bastard, who has looked deep into the heart of the world and walked away without hope and full of cynicism and depravity.  He likes hurting people and takes joy in cruelty.  A nationalist with no soul, he ultimately becomes undone emotionally by own lack of compassion.  He is the man stricken be a broken heart he did not think he had.  And Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings the character to life.  It’s a near perfect performance, successfully bringing Moore’s creation to life.

I was unsure of Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, the Nite Owl.  Early pictures had him looking a tad too fit.  But the instant I saw Dan, I knew this was the guy I remembered.  Wilson brings the character a certain melancholy  that I thought might be lost in translation.  But this is a guy who regrets having given up, but has gotten soft over the years.  He is truly the closes thing to a hero in the film.

Malin Ackerman was a bit more disappointing, at times her delivery is a bit stiff.  However, there are times where she embodies the insecurity that riddles Laurie (Silk Spectre II).  It just stands out against so many of the other performances.  I also worried about Matthew Goode as he seemed… too fragile, but once on screen, I felt he carried the presence that was required by a character hailed as the smartest man on earth.  Billy Crudup also provides a nice, distant feel with Dr. Manhattan.  Manhattan is the most powerful, and only truly super powered hero in the story.  But his powers are so immense, that he has lost touch with humanity, unable to connect to us any longer.

The story unfolds slowly, but certainly not at a boring pace, and Snyder has managed to keep it feel like it is moving along, even when watching talking heads.  It’s a challenge to the traditional super-hero story in which might makes right and heroes are noble people.  Instead, the heroes are driven by a myriad of goals.  And even the film’s villain is seeking to save humanity from itself.

The film is visually stunning, and the costumed heroes do not look like silly tights.  The sets (unlike Snyder’s 300, which was filmed in front of a blue screen, much of the streets of the collapsing 1985 cities were built) are carefully created and convincing.  And the film really plays in to Snyder’s strengths as a filmmaker.

My two main criticisms are semi related.  One is the music.  The song choices are all so on the nose, Snyder shows little flair in this film for original song choices (unfortunate as his Dawn of the Dead remake had the single best use of a Johnny Cash song in a film ever, as well as other inspired choices).  Really? The Sounds of Silence for a funeral scene?  And then there is the absurdly explicit sex scene.  People were laughing, suggesting it was having the opposite effect.  It did not help that it was set to the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah.  But in the overall scheme of things?  These are minor quibbles, the film is largely a success and compelling in it’s own right.

Snyder did good.  The cast did great (overall).  The gory moment are not the point of the film, and while some are there, they are ultimately serving the story.  Most of the condemnation I have seen for the film could be just as applicable to the source material.

It’s not for kids, and I would never recommend a parent take their child to this movie.  But what do I know?  I thought the Dark Knight was inappropriate for children and tons of people tell me their kids loved it.

On a random ending note…I saw one question that seems so, “Wait a minute”.  On Veit’s TVs Rambo is playing on one screen.  In a world where we won the Vietnam War… why would Rambo get made?  I suppose in the world of Watchmen, it’s an alternate universe tale… “What if we didn’t win?” 😉

This House Is Not Cleansed (The Conjuring 2, 2016)

conjuring_2_poster2013’s the Conjuring was not the first attempt to bring Ed and Lorraine Warren’s adventures to the screen.  Catholic ghost hunters and demonologists, Ed was a former cop and Lorraine proclaims to be clairvoyant.  Their work began in the early 50s and by the time Ed Warren passed in 2006, they claimed to have investigated over 10,000 cases. the 1991 TV movie the Haunted was based on one case, as was the 2009 Haunting in Connecticut.  James Wan brought us 2013’s the Conjuring.  An unnerving and powerful thriller following the Warrens as they try and help a family be free of a demonic presence.

It was a surprise hit, and I suspect part of the surprise is that people did not expect it to be both engaging and hopeful.  Wan made his name with the first Saw.  Saw was a rather bleak film, where people were forced to endure torture to survive and gain a better appreciation of life.  While the message was “don’t squander the gift of life”, the series proceeded to fight that very message after Wan moved on.  The Conjuring introduced us to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga),  a dedicated Christian couple determine to save the Perron family from the demonic.

The Conjuring 2 looks at a couple cases that made the Warrens famous in the 70’s.  It begins with their investigation of the house at the center of the Amityville Horror.  Their experience while investigating (in which Lorraine wanders the step through the eyes of Ronnie Defeo, Jr, who murdered his family) causes Lorraine to question if maybe they have knocked on the doors of hell once to often, are they pressing their luck?  She asks Ed about stopping.  Ed is more hesitant, not because he does not love or respect Lorraine, but he is still certain she has her visions for a reason.

Meanwhile, we are also following the Hodgsen family in Enfield North London.  Peggy’s husband has walked out, leaving her to care for their four children.  11 year old Janet starts to hear a voice, but then it progress, she awakens in other parts of the house.  There is pounding on the walls, things start to move, and most frighteningly, the spirit seems to have started to speak through young Janet.  The Warrens are brought in by the Catholic Church to determine of this is a hoax, or a true case of demonic activity.

Unlike many horror entries, the Conjuring Films are not about waiting for people to avoid death.  Instead, they focus on the hope and faith of the Warrens to help the families.  They want to bring safety and redemption to the Hodgsen family.  They find that young Janet is desperate to be believed.  She has been abandoned by friends, cut off from her sibling by the time they have arrived.  Both Ed and Lorraine connect with Janet by telling her how hard it was when they first saw spirits.  One of the first things Ed calls for is bringing the family together (the other kids were not staying in the house with Janet and her mother).    Ed buys Elvis records for the kids, because it was something they all loved to listened to before their dad left.  When the record player does not work, they all sit in the living room and Ed leads them in a round of of I Can’t Helping Falling in Love…when the children and their mother join in singing, the song becomes more than a simple love song.  It becomes a song of dedication to each other.  To stand together.

It ends up being greater terror than they could have anticipated, but the Warrens cannot turn away from this family, even when it appears that, just maybe, they are being taken.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are engaging as the Warrens.  The chemistry is there, and their love and compassion for others pours from the performances.  I do not know if the film versions of the Warrens are accurate to the real life Warrens, but I tell you this, I really like the Warrens in these films.  But they are not the only performances of note.  Madison Wolf is compelling and heartbreaking.  Her fear makes you want to do whatever you can to protect this kind hearted child from whatever evil is attacking her.  Simon McBurney’s Maurice Grosse starts out seeming like your typical researcher excited by the potential for himself.  But you find he is genuinely concerned for Janet and has very personal reasons for wanting to prove the existence of an afterlife.

Wan, along with screen writers Carey and Chad Hayes, have given us a story where everyone is likeable.  You do not have characters that you want to see get their comeuppance, because there is not need for that.  This is the battle of good versus evil on a higher reality.

Wan shows himself a master at thrills , building tension and delivering startled jumps.  People will often complain about Jump Scares, but that is really more because they are often used cheaply.  Wan delivers on the promises.  Few things are as creepy as a child’s toy playing on it’s own.  And there is a sequence that uses that very effectively.  Outside of two moments where the Crooked Man is an obvious computer generation, the spirits are creepy and unnerving, providing powerful menace.

Wan and his crew have given us a second very effective story.  It is chilling, yet full of hope and even love.  The Warrens are a charming couple, the family sympathetic.  Good horror is hard to do, good uplifting horror can be near impossible.  But the Conjuring 2 pulls it off.

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