The Conjuring by James Wan

The Conjuring by James Wan

The Conjuring by James Wan

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on a true story is competently incorporated into the film’s design. James Wan takes his time with his world creation and properly sets up a believable reality. These characters act like real people. Most people wouldn’t be quick to jump to the conclusion that their house is haunted and it would realistically take a while for a family to seek help. I couldn’t spot anybody making stupid horror movie mistakes. The initial scares did not scare me, but step-by-step the scares put me into the world. As I understood the science and how these ghosts worked, my mental defenses begun to weaken and I began dreading the scares.

Wan uses every trick in the book for the scares, but they are effectively scary. Judging it from a pure horror film fan’s view, the design of the scares by themselves are probably not that fresh. But it’s genetically encoded together with the story in such a way that if you were to show one of the film’s scary sequences on Youtube to a friend, the actual scare will be dampened without the context of the story.

The best thing The Conjuring achieves is that it properly balances the horror movie genre elements with its dramatic portions. It does so by focusing on Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are fascinating larger-than-life characters and are the heart of the story. Watching the paranormal investigators set up their ghost hunting equipment and explaining how ghosts behave was equally entertaining as any of the film’s fright sequences. Where in a typical horror movie that will rely on its scares to entertain the audience, The Conjuring has an interesting real-life story and characters that we can not only be scared by, but also speculate and ponder long after the scares are over. The Warrens are the X factor what will unite horror film fans and a typical movie go-er to enjoying this movie on multiple levels. I immediately Googled the Warrens afterwards and read about their other real-life paranormal investigations. I am glad the studio has decided to make a sequel with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga playing these characters again.

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Before Midnight by Richard Linklater

Before Midnight by Richard Linklater

Before Midnight continues the story of Jesse and Céline nine years after the events of Before Sunset, they are now a couple with twin daughters spending the final day of a summer holiday in Greece.

For the first time after the first two films, in Before Midnight we finally get to see Jesse and Celine actually in a relationship. Ethan Hawke in an interview on KCRW’s The Treatment recalled a behind-the-scenes story of how the steadi-cam operator got upset shooting a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse gazes upon a young girl in a bikini, stating that Jesse would never do that to Celine. That is key. We feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their relationship from the last two films.

I’ll give you an example. From having watched Jesse and Celine converse for two films now, I love that I am familiar with all their little ticks and peccadilloes. I know Celine hides her face with her long hair when she’s uncomfortable and that she hates it when Jesse interrupts her romantic fancies with realism. I know Jesse likes getting his money’s worth and often changes the subject when he doesn’t want to talk about something. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their would-be relationship from the last two films. The things they do and say have a more profound effect on us as an audience. Richard Linklater understands this and uses it to his advantage.

Never does it feel like Hawke or Delphy are acting. They just are these characters. I don’t know if it’s because they’re the writers of their own dialogue, their mutual camaraderie with each other and director Richard Linklater or all of the above. There’s a magic that’s still present after all these years. I use the word “magic” because I can’t pinpoint its mechanics. But when Jesse and Celine get talking, it feels like it’s happening right before me.

The conversations are the spectacle. On the surface, the characters are just telling interesting stories or giving their 2 cents on a given topic, but the conversations are designed with multiple arcs, callbacks and continually suggest and build character. The group dinner scene is a lot of fun as we see several characters converse with Jesse and Celine for the first time. It was a change in format and I found myself wanting to chime in and give my two cents on various topics. The climatic hotel scene is an impressive dialogue set piece, and it accurately captures how couples fight. They’re both fighting to stop themselves from having the last word, but can’t help saying it anyway.

If you haven’t seen the first two, I’d suggest go seeing them first. Before Midnight does work as a standalone film, but watching it standalone will cut off the journey of these two characters. By default, this third film would just mean less. This is a good third movie. I cannot help but see all three films as one story now. I almost don’t want to see a fourth film.

Unlike a lot of love stories where it concentrates on the pursuit of love, Before Midnight refreshingly focuses on the means to sustaining a relationship. It’s never tonally bitter or cynical. The film celebrates love by just presenting the simple truth, which includes the full spectrum of the sour, bitter and sweet. I love that Richard Linklater is using these iconic characters to say something profound about love, relationships and life in your forties. It’s a risky move considering where the second film left off, but he accomplished it beautifully and delivered a earnest message. I was scared, touched and at the end I felt like I saw two old friends and learned something.

 

Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

A young Clark Kent is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

The story of Superman, a character created during World War II, is dated by today’s standards. The fragility of his dual identity is never touched upon. The supposed smart career woman who he’s in love with never sees through his disguise as Clark Kent. He’s all powerful, doesn’t lie and always does the right thing. Nothing can physically hurt him except Kryptonite. How do you find conflict for this character? How can he grow? What is there for him to learn? This makes Superman a writer’s nightmare. The original material has written itself into a corner. It’s clear that the filmmakers’ goal was to undo many of these trappings and update Superman to a real modern context. Content aside, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan but I have never liked any of Zack Snyder’s films. What would be the end result of a Nolan-produced Zack Snyder production? Would they accomplish their goals? Is this vision of Superman going to be entertaining? This left me going in with an open mind.

Henry Cavill makes both a great Clark Kent and Superman. Surprisingly much of it is a silent performance, as he has minimal dialogue and communicates a lot of the inner turmoil through his face. The story gives him a lot to play and watching Clark grow into Superman step-by-step make up for the the most interesting segments. When he makes the choice to become Superman, we feel the gravity of that choice. The film is called Man of Steel for that very reason.

Lois Lane is the trickiest part to cast out of all the characters. The career-driven overachieving qualities of Lois Lane, if not balanced correctly, can easily make her into a bitch. She should be a jerk, but a likable jerk. It’s in Superman’s overwhelming presence where her heartier side slowly surfaces.
 Amy Adams nails the career woman part of Lois from her first scene. The heartier side she plays out convincingly as well but unfortunately the romance is a bit rushed. I would have liked to see Lois’s vulnerable side melt away slower and have it unfold in a sequel.

Russell Crowe gives the film an engaging energetic kickstart as Jor-el; he puts an enthusiasm into this role he hasn’t in years. Michael Shannon brings a ferocious intensity to General Zod, who’s written as more complex and more relatable than Terrence Stamp’s version. I believe his motivation and anger. Laurence Fishburne is always a welcome presence and makes a fine Perry White, but what is up with that diamond earring? Is that suitable for work?

Kevin Costner is the heart of the movie as Jonathan Kent. He and Diane Lane make really convincing on-screen parents. Both are real-life parents and there’s something about how being a parent that physically changes the way carry yourself that’s hard to fabricate. That quality is captured effectively here and the values the Kents instill into Clark echoes throughout the film. Martha Kent’s first scene with a young Clark at school almost moved me to tears.

Hans Zimmer’s music punctuates the film’s goal by scoring a “Man of Steel” theme as opposed to a Superman theme. There’s no distinct attempt at trying to capture Superman’s presence with musical keys, the emphasis is the man himself. This separates it from John William’s class original score. The bombastic loud soaring god-like moments are operatic, and the quieter human moments show a lonely man moving from contemplation towards action.

Zack Snyder makes good directorial choices. Snyder’s held back with his trademark slow motion shots and thank goodness for that. The handheld cinematography effectively grounds the scenes, particularly the childhood scenes in Smallville evoke Terrence Malick films. The non-linear flashbacks is a great choice as it mixes things up for an origin story that we have seen before. It was more interesting we didn’t have to go through it linearly.

The finale is too long, partly it’s a reaction from all the complaints of no action from Superman Returns. People have been talking about the issue of too much destruction. It’s more that a lot of the destruction is caused by Superman himself. He seems unaware of his surroundings and is actively using the surrounding buildings to hurt his enemies. This would have been nullified if Cavill’s Superman just saved more civilians between the fights and if the aftermath of the destruction was addressed by the media. Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh’s versions had no problem multi-tasking. The only one Superman power that wasn’t shown was the super breath, and there were many instances he could have used that power to put out a few fires. Maybe Superman hasn’t learned that power yet but he could have used his powers more creatively as well. On a tangential note, I loved the design of the heat vision. There was a destructive ‘last resort’ quality that looked scary and painful to fire out of your eyes.

Finally, some people might feel cheated by or downright reject these changes to the Superman mythos, but these changes properly inject the necessary weaknesses that can set this version of Superman on a journey with enough lessons to learn for subsequent films (assuming they’re making at least three of these including a Justice League movie). The new places they go with Superman were ultimately what thrilled me and the quiet human moments were what moved me. Personally I would have traded 10 minutes out of the finale for 10 more minutes in Smallville.

I look forward to where they take this version of Superman. Depending on which direction of the next film may affect how I feel about Man of Steel because there are a lot of things that are left unfinished that can be fixed in the sequel (i.e. the romance, the aftermath of the damage, Superman saving more people, how the world is reacting to his presence). It’s time to cast Lex Luthor!

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

The crew of the USS Enterprise meets an unstoppable force of terror from within Starfleet, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

The central relationship between Kirk and Spock is the most compelling element out of the entire Star Trek canon. My peers frequently debate me about Star Trek: The Next Generation but my viewing experience of TNG has only been the movies. Unfortunately I missed it as a television series. For my money, there’s been nothing nearly as compelling and iconic as Kirk’s hot-blooded brash instinct versus Spock’s cold logic and the temperamental humane Dr. McCoy caught between them. I love what they each represent and their eternal triangular quarrel. They want to work together to solve grandiose problems but they all see different on the approach. Never does one of them ever solve the solution completely with their own philosophy and often it’s a varying combination of all three that saves the day. It’s about hearing people out, being unassuming and adapting to new ideas. When Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in the mid-60’s, Gene Roddenberry intended the original show to have a major political agenda and aimed to present an optimistic version of what man can be at their very best.

Much of the essence from Star Trek: The Original Series remains in Star Trek Into Darkness, it contains themes about colonialism, political intervention, foreign policy and terrorism. But it is there only if you want to read it. These themes are expressed in a muted fashion as the thematic discussions are always running parallel to major action set pieces. As if the material was like a shark that had to keep moving at breakneck speed or it will risk dying of boredom. Personally, I never minded those thematic discussions in the previous Star Trek films. A few more quiet moments wouldn’t have been bad either. Just saying. Now that J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie, the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” geek war that existed when I was a teenager might very well be over now. A Star Wars influence is present in the film and I ponder what elements Abrams will bring over.

The script is workshopped to an inch of its life. Heck, it’s indicative in the film’s “no colon” title. The fact that the writers have been quoted stating that “There’s no word that comes after the colon after Star Trek that’s cool.” has been clearly spent way too much time pulling their hair psychotically, obsessing over every detail and perfecting the story over coffee-spilled paper. Seriously, is there really a group of people out there that feels negative about colons after the movie title? Does that really justify warping (yes, pun intended) English grammar? This sounds like ranting but I really mean this as a compliment to their supposed geek madness.

The cast delivers as they did in the previous installment. I do think having watched the previous installment helps immensely as there are not a lot of character building moments for everybody. But the actors are all well casted in their roles and fortunately every crew member still has something to do. Zachary Quinto shines as Spock and his friendship with Chris Pine’s Kirk is a believable one. Their friendship is the heart of the movie. Simon Pegg gets to do something new as Scotty. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great villain. He owns the audience. One minute he is savagely evil, the next minute we slightly sympathize with him and then he shifts again. On that note, I can’t wait for Sherlock season 3.

This is a very ambitious film that has a lot of things to accomplish. It’s trying to deliver a story with multiple characters, please both the non-fans and the fans, go to new territory but also honor the spirit of the original series. The film essentially wants to have its cake and eat it too but it accomplishes it really well. If J.J. Abrams’ gave any more pop culture nods as he does in this film, his head would fall off. I cheered at the spectacle of the action scenes, laughed at the in-jokes, and almost cried at the film’s climax. It doesn’t go to new territory as much as the first one and I hope they do go somewhere new for the next installment.

I want to see it again and look forward to the third installment. Hopefully it won’t take as long as this one.

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

The sequel to 2010’s Love in a Puff continues the story of Jimmy and Cherie (played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung), who met and fell in love through their outdoor office smoking breaks (after the 2007 Hong Kong government indoor smoking ban). Five months after the events in the first film, Jimmy and Cherie face more difficulties in their romantic relationship as they split up and both individually end up in Beijing as they follow their jobs to China’s capital city, and both begin new relationships there. But despite their best efforts they can’t seem to keep away from each other.

Edmond Pang Ho Cheung is a promising writer/director that always puts out off-kilter interesting work. Isabella and Exodus still remain my favourite Pang Ho Cheung films. The only Pang film I did not like was the Category III  horror film Dream Home for it’s over-excessive satirical violence that ran out of steam. Love in the Buff was released in its original Cantonese language dub in Mainland theatres (which is a first! Something I’ve wanted to see for my entire teenage life), and that’s how I saw it. Part of the sell of the movie is watching celebrities swear onscreen, so it was important that I saw it in Cantonese. I laughed more than six times and was glad to see the mandarin-speaking locals next to me laughing as well in its sharply-written dialogue set pieces. For this reason, the film will be lost on English-speaking audiences.

In a way, the film was made specific to me. It was about Hong Kong people living in Beijing. The locations were all the restaurants and places where Cantonese people congregate. In fact, there was an establishing shot of the mall I was watching the movie in. So the film briefly gave me a non-acid mind trip. Beijing is presented in a non-touristy gaze and the film addresses the cultural interaction between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders. Together with the swearing, the film felt real and life-like. So this all added an extra layer for me.

By the middle, the film was bringing up hints of that romantic comedy trope in which the conflict would be easily resolved if the protagonists told each other how they felt, instead of dragging the movie for another 20 minutes. That usually annoys me as it always seems to exist only to prolong the film to the 90-minute mark. I would have been annoyed but Pang does something interesting with it. The non-communication is exactly the problem between Jimmy and Cherie. They are a couple who never knows the right time to say the right things to each other and it keeps creating rifts between them. Hence the need for the many supporting characters who serve as their confidants, who talk to them while they’re around each other. There are two tongue-in-cheek celebrity gags with Huang Xiaoming and Ekin Cheng. I preferred the latter gag, the former was a bit too cheeky “wink wink” in-jokey for me. Pang makes all these conversations fun with witty lines, innuendoes and profanity. I could see it all being shorter, but it was fun.

Love in the Buff really does test the likability of its two leads with the audience. Jimmy and Cherie are pretty real in the sense that they aren’t likeable all the time. In fact, they’re even downright shitty at times the way they treat their present lovers Sam and Youyou (played by Zheng Xu and Mini Yang). Sometimes you want to go up to slap both of them. I was worried that the film will lose me and drag along. It did not. The film makes these characters sympathetic by showing how well Jimmy and Cherie fit together as a couple. To quote John Cusack from High Fidelity, “Some people just feel like home.” And with that, the film ultimately won me over by the end.

Even though, if it were me, I’d totally choose Mini Yang as my movie girlfriend. An air hostess who takes Polaroids? Seriously? Sign me up! Man, I have a new crush.

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

There is something admirable about the PG-13 horror film. It is not allowed to be gory, crass, nasty or graphic, and that forces the filmmaker to use alternative, more subtle methods to induce scares for audiences. Scary thoughts and ideas have to be implied as opposed to physicalized. Often it takes more thought and discipline to achieve this. Joe Dante’s The Hole is one good example. I would even argue the latter Harry Potter films are essentially horror films for children as well.

Anyways, the set-up: Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer, who recently lost his wife from childbirth, travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success speaks about the 10,000 hour rule, the idea that mastery in any skill must involve practicing it for up till 10,000 hours. From all those years of playing Harry Potter, actor Daniel Radcliffe has proven the 10,000 hour rule with the skill of “acting to nothing.” Much of the film’s scares hang on the reactions off Radcliffe’s face, everything that the film wants the viewer to believe is present is communicated and punctuated through his performance. He has matured and refined his act into a disciplined performer than previously relying on instincts as he did on the Harry Potter films. A popular criticism that’s been circulating around is that Daniel Radcliffe is a bit young to be believable as a solicitor that has recently lost his wife. I did not mind it as it was not a conscious observation to me as I watched the film. He is a very watchable presence and carries the film competently.

Jump scares are something one can grow out of in life. It used to be the part in a horror movie I dreaded the most when I was a child and now as an adult they do not scare me at all. After all, there’s only 2 possible results to a jump scare: either the jump scare was for nothing (in which there was no point to the build-up and it’s just there to scare you to keep you unsettled for the real scares later) or for something (in which the build-up was giving away the surprise of the scare, i.e. in The Descent, there is never any build-up music/sound effects to a scare). Personally there were too many jump scares utlized in the film.  That said however, it is still a legitimate aesthetic choice because it can still prove very effective for a teen audience.

The film gave me 4-5 genuine scares. The Woman in Black‘s scarier moments come from the idea that children are vulnerable to death and danger without proper parental protection. It’s a lingering omnipresent feeling provided by the film’s gloomy gothic atmosphere. The Woman in Black is picking off all these children and the parents cannot do anything to protect them. One noteworthy scene that gave me the creeps was a child victim who dies from drinking lye. The little child helplessly collapses, spits bloods and drops dead. Nobody can do anything but watch her die. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?

Which reminds me, to all the responsible parents out there: Please respect the film’s rating, do not take your child to see this because Daniel Radcliffe is in it. 13 is the minimum age for this movie.

I really enjoyed the ending. It was poignant and bittersweet. Although I didn’t think the very last shot was necessary (I’m not going to say what it is but people who end up watching the film can reply to me on that).

Overall, it’s a competent horror film with a fine lead performance cast in a role that plays to his strengths. It’s not great, but it is pretty good work. You can easily nitpick it to death, but I am not going to. I look forward to seeing more of Daniel Radcliffe in future films.