FRESH POUR: The Conjuring (2013) / RED 2 (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

The Conjuring / dir. James Wan / Warner Bros. Pictures

the-conjuring-posterHaunted house movies are a dime a dozen; so are paranormal movies ostensibly ‘based on real events.’ To that end, I wouldn’t be surprised if people give nothing but a sidelong glance to The Conjuring, a period-piece spookfest based on the real-life ‘cases’ of paranormal investigators Ed & Lorraine Warren (played here wonderfully by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). After an immensely creepy prelude that reminds us of James Wan’s fetish for creepy dolls, an opening text crawl provides us with the context of the film: The Warrens are ‘demonologists’ who are formally recognized by the Catholic church, and the following is the tale of their most bizarre, harrowing case, involving a cursed house and a haunted family, all set against the groovy yet Gothic backdrop of the 70s.

Perhaps the most innovative thing The Conjuring brings to the table (admittedly carried over from Wan’s previous Patrick-Wilson-in-a-haunted-house film Insidious) is the mixing of procedural elements into the scares. Early on, we see the Perrons (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, and five interchangeable daughters) become increasingly terrorized in their new home, and the last act revolves around the Warrens’ investigation, with the help of the family and some helpers who drop in, including their hip kid sidekick Drew and a police officer. The film works best with these characters setting up equipment, testing microphones, listening to recordings, etc. It’s like watching Ghost Hunters, except you know something is actually going to happen this time.

Wan has made his bones on films like Saw and Insidious, and you can really see his style start to develop. He seems a very versatile director, capable of the kind of frenetic disorientation found in Saw, and a wonderful sense of elegance in The Conjuring. I actually found myself marveling at some of the tastefully-shot scenes in the film, the camera following the characters around voyeuristically to establish space and place us firmly in their terrified shoes. Even after the 15th scene of a character wandering around the house by themselves, Wan’s sense of pacing and tension is incredible and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The production design helps greatly with this; Wan and crew pulled out all the stops in making everything from the costumes to period cars scream the exact kind of washed-out 1970s look the film needs to match its period and remind us of those great 70s haunted house flicks (The Exorcist, Poltergeist) this film pays homage to.

What really helps sell the film is the wonderful cast, who play their roles with restraint and utter seriousness. Wilson and Farmiga turn in awesome, understated performances as two people who are doing their job, have understandable but not melodramatic relationship discussions, and a great sense of gee-whiz vulnerability. Livingston and Taylor are also great as the concerned family, especially Taylor later on as the demon has a greater influence on her than previously anticipated. The only missteps are a few of the kids, especially the youngest; her line readings gravitate more toward soap-commercial territory than anything resembling a performance, but it’s a small quibble.

One refreshing element is that there are very few skeptics in the film; the Warrens are treated as legitimate experts, with only the occasional crack at their expense. Reporters, students, and the Perrons all treat them with deference, as if demonology is a legitimate profession. While that may give you pause in the real world, here it helps to sell the importance of what they do, and raises the tension when the real haunting begins. Interpersonal conflict is kept at a refreshing low; all the characters in the film work as a unit to help defeat the cynical, divisive demon. It’s an ideological war as much as a spiritual one – the much-derided power of love actually plays a big factor in saving the day, but it feels genuine and earned. The scenes where the Warrens and crew live with the Perrons and make a huge breakfast together bring a nice sense of warmth to the characters, investing us in them further. The Warrens and the Perrons seem like family by the end, especially during the film’s denouement, where the eventual victory over the demon is treated as a communal one, not just for the Perrons. (I must also applaud a movie that can generate this many scares without an actual body count.)

The meat and potatoes are the film’s many scenes of the various hauntings inflicted on the characters, which establish an eerie sense of dread with many a creaking door, creepy clapping and shattering glass coming from unpredictable corners. It can eventually get predictable, but the predictability isn’t the point – the exercise in craft that The Conjuring is allows us to appreciate the establishment of brilliant mood and tension, which is the whole point of haunted-house movies in the first place. Wan doesn’t reinvent the wheel with The Conjuring, but he makes the best wheel you could possibly hope for.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for The Conjuring
1) drink every time a door opens, closes or is knocked
2) Drink whenever the Warrens explain something about the paranormal
3) drink any time the camera makes an ambitious turn/swoop/dolly movement
Finish Your Drink When:
Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) shouts “Bathsheba! By the power of God, I condemn you to Hell!”

RED 2 / dir. Dean Parisot / Summit Entertainment

originalI enjoyed the first RED; loosely based on Some Comic Book by Some Guy, it allowed an often-tired Bruce Willis to have a little fun and gather an ensemble of respected older actors around him (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren) to create an enjoyable little action-spy picture in their own right. With the sequel, however, that sense of fun is diluted somewhat by a meandering storyline, some ill-advised twists, and an overall lack of purpose.

Following the events of the first movie, Frank (Willis) is now happily dating Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), an average-Jane customer service rep who got wrapped up in the events of the first film. However, their life turns back to spying when Frank and Marvin (Malkovich) show up in a governmental kill order to hide the secrets of some doomsday-bomb MacGuffin named Nightshade. Going on the run, taking an all-too-adventurous Sarah with them, the three have to find out how to clear their names.

RED 2 sees Galaxy Quest director Dean Parisot take over directing duties; that film is one of my favorite action-comedies, so I had high hopes for this one. However, the biggest crime of the film is that it’s incredibly spotty; the tone vacillates between ensemble action-comedy, quirky romantic-comedy, and more. Essentially, the film is about Frank and Sarah getting accustomed to each other’s lives in a relationship and learning to trust one another, especially in terms of past relationships (here personified by Catherine Zeta-Jones’ smaller role as a Russian agent, curiously with no Russian accent). Frank, obviously, doesn’t want Sarah to get killed, but Sarah thinks all this spy stuff is great fun, and throws herself in wholeheartedly to every car chase and seduction scheme she bumbles through. Parker has a wonderful energy that spices up the proceedings (particularly since Willis doesn’t put in as much effort as I’d like here), and her earnest incompetence is actually refreshing to watch. It kind of feels like a companion piece to True Lies, with Parker as the Jamie Lee Curtis character.

There’s some other new blood to keep things interesting; Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun plays a rival assassin out to kill Frank (and/or get his stolen plane back). While he has little to no chemistry with the other actors, his own presence is immense, and even as a straight man I admire the trend in American Byung-hun films to get his shirt off at some point. Look, he’s a gorgeous man, okay? Deal with it. Neal McDonough is entertaining enough as a charming, bemused American security agent chasing down Frank, and Anthony Hopkins channels just enough Hannibal Lecter to make his kooky, doddering scientist character fun (until a third-act twist just turns him sort of evil).

Despite the moments of fun the film has, it’s still pretty damn scattershot. The plot meanders somewhat aimlessly from setpiece to setpiece, with little in the way of connective tissue to the actual scheme. McDonough’s character, in particular, isn’t really given the payoff he deserves given his strong introduction as the film’s villain. The over-the-top action is pretty good, if oddly directed; car chases and gunfights will vacillate between conventionally filmed excitement and kooky close-ups and slow-motion shots of Helen Mirren firing two guns out of the windows of a spinning car. No, wait, never mind, that’s pretty awesome.

What RED 2 is really missing is Morgan Freeman; in the first movie, it was much more about the ensemble charm of four old agents coming out of retirement to rediscover how fun it is to be young and actiony. Since he died in the first film, however, we’re left with a charming-but-empty Odd Couple thing with Frank and Marvin, the occasional hilarious scene with a highly underused Mirren, and the younger players (Parker and Byung-hun) dancing around them trying to get an action picture made. The story belongs much more exclusively to Frank, when there isn’t much story left to tell after the first one. If you liked the first RED, you could do worse than to check this out, but it’s a marked step down from the more cohesive fun of the first.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for RED 2:
1) Drink whenever a new character joins or leaves the central three characters (Frank, Sarah and Marvin)
2) Drink every time you see comic-book style titles/transitions
3) Drink anytime Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) asserts herself as a spy/action heroine
Finish Your Drink When:
Victoria (Helen Mirren) says to Han (Lee Byung-Hun), “Show me something.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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