REVIEW: The Conjuring 2, is definitely scary but should stick to what its good at

REVIEW: The Conjuring 2, is definitely scary but should stick to what its good at

The Conjuring constituted something of a cultural phenomenon. As horror films go, it was high-budget, star-studded (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and others), and enjoyed the lowest common denominator of being embraced by fans and receiving something resembling critical attention. It’s not that it was original: it took its cues from a mixture of haunting movies (pretty much anything with “Amityville” in the title) and demonic possession movies (pretty much anything with “exorcism” in the title). The language of The Conjuring combined multiple genres: the animation of banal objects, the ventriloquism of otherwise sweet children, the creepiness of the literal house (following a large body of horror films for which Clover’s “the terrible place” is the domestic space), and, quite liberally, shots of scary, gangrenous, ghostly faces, if only for a frame or too. The Conjuring failed to accomplish the dictates of truly good horror (this year’s The Witch brought about interesting meditations on feminine coming-of-age as well as the entire script of good femininity, while 10 Cloverfield Lane dealt with kidnapping, confinement, and apocalypse rendered with staggering ingenuity… last year’s It Follows deployed issues of adolescent sex, and the list of thematically saturated horror goes on), but it did manage the ultimate goal: to be really fucking scary. When I screened it in my living room, I involuntarily screamed, audible genuine screams.

The Conjuring 2 basically follows the same format as its predecessor. The first horror elements come from the animation of different toys and household objects: an empty swing swinging, an empty chair rocking, a toy fire truck turning on seemingly by itself. Soon enough, a sweet girl becomes fodder for demonic puppetry. Finally, jump scares–mostly in the form of creepy faces accompanied by crescendoes in the score and sound mixing–abound in every corner. Unlike The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 gets tripped up in telling two narratives in parallel for the first half of the film. The Conjuring 2 maintains its connection to the first film by introducing us to the life and times of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, the home-exorcism experts of the Amityville horror we witnessed in the first film. We switch back and forth between the Warrens, and a british family, the Hodgens, victims of a London haunting. While their Hodgens story is much more compelling, we’re frequently brought back to the Warrens as Lorraine grows hysterical about a vision that continues to haunt her from one of the Warrens’ cases. Lorraine tries desperately to convince Ed that it’s time for the two to get out of the haunting game, but, when the Hodgens’ haunting is brought to their attention, the Warrens decide to take one more case before retirement.

The Conjuring 2 manages to leverage scores of jump scares before the nuts and bolts of the plot even get doled out, which works in its favor. But, by an hour into the run time, when audience adrenaline and heart rates have been turned up to 11, The Conjuring 2 gets tripped up in explaining an excessively complicated plot behind the haunting, but without any particularly revelational twist. Because the actual plot is entirely unfascinating, I’m going to spoil it in the review: several spirits (The Crooked Man, a character from the Hodgens’ children’s zoetrope toy, an old man who died in the house, and a few others), who have intermittently haunted the family, were really just serving as decoys for this OTHER demon that can be condemned back to hell if you invoke its name, which Lorraine does at a crucial climax, recalling that she’d learned the demon’s name in a vision earlier in the film. Oy! It’s complicated, and boring. It’s far from a satisfying story, and the final revelation (the demon’s name) hardly constitutes an unexpected twist (a la the family was dead the whole time, the events were all told through an unreliable subjectivity, the culprit was someone unexpected, etc. etc.) though the film begs audiences to see it this way. The hour-or-so portion of the film devoted to getting this plot out is nothing short of laborious, and every time Lorraine Warren has a “eureka” moment that may allow her to defeat the baddie  by the end, it’s impossible not to roll one’s eyes.

Not to mention, that the whole plot lacks any real thematic meat. In fact, if there’s anything to be gleaned, ideologically from the film, it’s a pretty overt religious project: the demons in both the films, and the religious impulses of the Warren family, only serve to confirm and uphold the ideologies and beliefs of the Christian faith, which is a far-from-haunting final takeaway, and rings ultimately as cheesy, cloying and contrived. But, what’s worse, is that the plot and abject Christianity of the film, bog the film down from doing what it could truly excel at: scaring the shit out of you. The scary elements are cheap as hell: the opportunities for jump scares are exploited indiscriminately, left and right. It’s not to say that these aren’t rendered in new and exciting ways (one of the scariest moments of the film, actually, is merely a cut after which the ventriloquized Hodgens girl appears directly next to her older sister’s bed, seemingly having teleported, albeit across the cut, a moment which hardly registers as “done” or “trope-y”). The film even directly confronts a number of horror tropes (we see a shot of the entire family running out of the house after an incident, seeming to answer the audience’s most burning question through the ages: “Why wouldn’t you just leave the house?”)

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So, it’s not to say there isn’t some cleverness in the language of The Conjuring 2, merely that the opportunities to scare audiences mostly take the form of shock and surprise. They’re cheap! And there’s nothing wrong with that–horror audiences crave the adrenaline rush of filmic terror, and if this rush can be pulled off without campy bad-acting, even better. But these requirements make up a great valley of horror, being that most horror is either not-scary or so badly written and executed that it’s unwatchable, except maybe as ironic camp, ultimately catapulting the original object into the comedy genre, unintentionally. Here sits The Conjuring saga on a gold mine, but the second film insists on having a convoluted plot in order to lead to cinching revelations.

The film manages to be sincerely frightening. It should just stick with that: an hour and a half of shameless jump scares, and a simple, concise exorcism to introduce closure. As long as the plot it proposes is total garbage, it may as well succeed at what it does best. Even if this were to produce a contrived or silly ending, it could hardly be worse than what the film ultimately proposes.

REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project

REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project

Eye in the Sky opens with a quote on black. “Truth,” the title card waxes, “is the first casualty in war.”

The point is resonant and well taken, but it’s hard to say if the film itself agrees with the adage at all, and, even if we’re to assume it does, whose truth is liable to atrophy in war is extremely ambiguous, if not purposefully obscured.

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Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight

Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight

Horror movies are the best movies. There. I said it.

Horror’s ability to dramatize larger-than-life threats (monsters, ghosts, demons, psychos) in order to disseminate resonant and cogent themes that reflect and meditate on the very nature of fear itself provides the genre’s Achilles heal and elevating grace. When horror films fail to suspend our disbelief or provide convincing writing and performances, it can fail miserably at its own objectives: to scare and to ponder. But, when horror succeeds at provoking immersion and conviction, and engenders a textured, multi-layered approach to fear, it can soar above all other films in its unique ability to do that which it sets out to do: scare us. tl;dr: when horror films are good, they’re really, really good and when they’re bad they’re rotten. I was surprised and delighted to find Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane situated in the former category.

“10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.”

Wielding the virtues of a stunning cast and a big budget, 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds at delivering any horror maven’s desires: 1) effective jump scares, the bounty of which any adrenalin-junkie is in constant pursuit 2) codification of fear towards the film’s central diegetic threats (apocalypse, confinement, kidnapping) and 3) rumination on insidious, non-diegetic fear (which I will soon elucidate). All of these elements constituate the film’s brilliant thematic work.

The film follows Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010]), who leaves her fiancée in the middle of the night in pursuit of greener pastures only to be driven off of the road by an irate truck driver (it’s less trope-y and “done” than it sounds). She wakes up in a cinder block cell, with a now-broken leg chained to the wall. She manages to use an water-drip IV to retrieve her personal affects from across the room, including her surprisingly not-dead phone, but she has no cellular service. She’s underground. Enter Howard, played by John Goodman (who begs no introduction, obvs), who brings a tray of food and benevolently urges Michelle to stay hydrated and “get handy” with a pair of crutches. In the coming days, Michelle learns that her surroundings are but one room in a surprisingly cozy bunker (which looks like equal parts the Dharma bunker from Lost and a studio set from the apartment of insert-your-favorite-sitcom-here) which she shares not only with Howard, but also with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. of Short Term 12 [2012]) a Podunk simpleton who holds Howard in nothing but the highest regard for his foresight in constructing and generosity in sharing a bunker built for a doomsday scenario which has apparently taken hold of the nation somewhere in between the inciting car accident and Michelle waking up. The nature of the Armageddon is unclear–Howard offers hypotheses ranging from nuclear blasts at the hands of “the Russkis” to extraterrestrial probes. Michelle is skeptical, convinced that she’s being held for nefarious purposes rather than protective ones. Whether or not the apocalyptic scenario is actual (and, therefore, whether or not the strange and short-fused Howard is a hero or a villain) forms the central mystery of the film.


On paper, it sounds like 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its cues from the exposition of Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt minus the comedic impulses and War of the Worlds, but the premise is articulated with what feels like utter-freshness as we are immediately encouraged to think that this is not a film we’ve seen played out before. The film’s relationship with not-so-acclaimed Cloverfield (2008) is only established, rather negligibly, in the last 15 minutes of the film, and its association with the antecedent film is liberated from the pesky shaky-cam and found-footage aesthetic. (The script was developed independent of the 2008 film, and it shows).

One of the greatest strengths of the film derives from its mise-en-scene which successfully impresses upon us the confinement and the sense of always being watched (as well as the contrivance of the bunker’s resemblance to a family home) of the characters, but additionally generates a prosthetic sense of confinement for the audience. The pacing of the film is on fire (save for a regrettable time-is-passing montage that shows Michelle, Emmett, and Howard to be getting along as a content, surrogate nuclear family) with every breath of stagnancy punctuated immediately by a scream-provoking cut, a chase sequence, or a big-reveal. The performances also shine brightly, chiefly in Goodman’s case.


Goodman makes an unlikely candidate for a dramatic, nay, terrifying, role, but his tendency towards comedic timing only contributes to the uneasiness of the film, as much of his dialogue is simultaneously pathetically laughable and highly unnerving. (He treats Michelle to home-distilled vodka, lamenting “I just said I distilled it, I didn’t say anything about it actually tasting good,” and he apologizes to Michelle about the circumstances offering, “I know that this isn’t the life that you prefer, and that it’s been hard for you to come down here… but I really want us to be a happy family, you and me”). As the audience attempts the tenuous process of deciding whether to loathe or root for Howard, Goodman provides the requisite nuance to evoke pity, horror, and above all, confusion. Primarily, we find out Howard is estranged from his daughter, Meghan, a reveal which is likely to provoke a pout in solidarity with Howard even as we are equally suspicious of his motives as Michelle.

Additionally, Winstead makes a great kickass heroine or “last girl.” In the first place, her characterization elides the Sci-Fi/fantasy impulse to masculinize it’s central female characters (re: Ripley of Alien fame, cuz, you know, women can’t be tough unless they’re basically manly). In fact, it is actually the female-coded skills of sewing and fashion design which allow Michelle to triumph over her circumstances–a properly badass gender and genre subversion. But, whatever the moment, Michelle provides a portrayal of the consummate survivor, scrappy, spry, and resourceful: at times, she endeavors to placate Howard, and at others she defies and mutinizes against him. This interplay advances greatly the thematics of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which dramatizes issues of (abusive) father-daughter relationships through the hyperbolized stakes of this surrogate family–Howard is simultaneously the bungling sitcom father, “just doing his best” as well as the twisted and monstrous parental archetype so familiar to horror films (albeit these portrayals are usually emblemized through a woman, see also: Psycho and Carrie). With the threat of apocalypse looming large, albeit somewhere in the background, 10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.

SPOILER-SATURATED CONCLUSION AFTER THE JUMP

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REVIEW The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino’s Third Bad Film

REVIEW The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino’s Third Bad Film

CW: Racism.

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It should be stated that I am a Quentin Tarantino fan. Not an unrepentant one, an ambivalent one, but a fan nonetheless. I have seen every film in which he earned a credit, I have a Pulp Fiction poster in my room, and the Reservoir Dogs DVD with limited edition packaging so the case LOOKS LIKE A KEROSENE CAN. “How can it be true?” You ask. “Has film school taught you nothing?”

It’s true: Quentin Tarantino’s films seem like an MFA student’s thesis film, with its transparent homages to other films, at best, and are downright racist at worst. Rightfully, he’s become as condemned in academic circles as he is lauded by audiences. I won’t use his aesthetics or meticulous planning to attempt to elevate him; my fave is problematic.

But there are moments, early on in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s eighth film, in which rivaling bounty hunters are trapped in a cabin during a snow storm, it seems as if Tarantino will, for once, generate a productive film. Posturing itself as a neo-Western, which assuredly secures Tarantino’s position as the “remix artist” or “post modern filmmaker,” The Hateful Eight evokes everything from John Ford (the first chapter is structured around a stagecoach ride), to McCabe and Mrs. Miller (in large part due simply to the wintry setting, but also because of the insertion of religious icons ritualistically throughout the film and the contemporary folk music choices in the soundtrack, a la The White Stripes’ “Apple Blossom”), to Tarantino’s previous films themselves (the confined who-done-it structure undoubtedly reminds us of Reservoir Dogs, and has just a slight From Dusk ’til Dawn aftertaste. This posturing allows for a wealth of productive commentary–amidst the sentimentalizing of the genre itself–to the extent that it invites a comparison between the modern day and the days of the frontier, or between the modern day and days of Classical Westerns.

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Review: Stereoscoped Scopophilia in Gaspar Noe’s “Love”

Review: Stereoscoped Scopophilia in Gaspar Noe’s “Love”

CW: mention of transphobia, homophobia, and extremely explicit mentions of sex.

If you’re like me, your relationship with pornography is one of love and hate, hope and immediate disappointment. It’s seldom that the mood to even search for it strikes you, but when it does, you feel a newfound sense of determination. If I search for a really long time with all the right tags in the right places, you think, surely I’ll find the one diamond of a porn tailor made for my sexual inclinations. It takes you about ten minutes of searching, many minutes of which are filled with abject disgust rather than pleasurable curiosity, and you opt for the softly-lit girl-on-girl video you bookmarked two years ago, even though you’re neither a lesbian or a heterosexual man. You get your rocks off quickly enough, close your laptop before your post-orgasmic eyes can digest whatever you just watched, and you go to bed, lamenting, I just want a porn video as sensual and tender as the sex you see at the cinema.

But, then, you see the trailer for Gaspar Noe’s Love (2015), and you think the abandoned sexuality of pornography has finally married with the meticulously intentioned artfulness of cinema. Or, maybe you just thought, An unrated 3D movie? Maybe there’ll be a 3D cum shot. And you’d be right.

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