(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) I had been waiting for Stretch for years. A new film by writer/director Joe Carnahan? Yes, but after two years in post-production hell, Stretch was never shown in theatres and its release on the VOD market was quiet enough to go unnoticed—I learned about the film from an article about how Netflix was changing the distribution market. But it took another three years for Stretch to make it to Canadian Netflix, and I ended up watching it within days of its availability. Verdict? It’s the Carnahan movie I was waiting for: fast-paced, darkly comic, strangely conceived, tightly edited. It takes potshots at the insanity of Los Angeles, exploits Patrick Wilson’s charisma to its fullest extent and gets Chris Pine to deliver a wonderfully bizarre performance quite unlike anything an actor like him is expected to provide. Jessica Alba shows up as a gal-pal love interest, Ed Helms’ cackling voice-of-reason character has a mostly-posthumous presence … and that’s not even talking about David Hasselhoff or Ray Liotta. Produced on a shoestring $5M budget, Stretch looks ten times more expensive, and has more manic inventiveness in its 90-minutes duration than any three random Hollywood theatrical releases. The pedal-to-the-metal pacing of the film helps sell its weirdest quirks, as one day (and night) in the life of a limousine driver gets worse and worse. Stretch isn’t a great movie, but it’s pitch-perfect at reaching its target and it’s maddeningly entertaining for anyone who discovers it. I’m really annoyed that it’s still largely unknown, and somewhat grateful that, thanks to Netflix, it now has a fighting chance of being seen.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The good news, I suppose, is that while The Conjuring 2 is significantly less impressive than its predecessor, the first film was so good that it makes its sequel a fair horror movie rather than a great one. Moving the action in England but keeping the first film’s focus on a family, our likable married heroes and a gradual cranking up of the tension (although the original’s lack of gore is instantly exceeded by a very violent opening dream sequence), The Conjuring 2 is more of the same, but less surprisingly so. Director James Wan is the star here, expertly moving the camera to show (or not show) elements crucial to the tension. The London-set poor-neighborhood is less inspiring than the first film’s farmhouse, and the broken family not quite as likable either, but you can see the script going back to the first film’s strengths whenever it needs a boost. The result may be far more ordinary, but at least it avoids sinking into exploitation or nihilism like so many other horror movies—there’s a core of sheer decency to the single mom trying to keep her family together and the heroic Warren couple (Both Vera Famiglia and Patrick Wilson are likable actors, and the Elvis scenes take their screen relationship to another level of sympathy), and it’s that kind of “this is why horrors are worth fighting” spirit that is all too often missing from cheap horror. This being said, while I was a vocal proponent of The Conjuring, I don’t expect to advocate for this sequel as much—it’s less of a surprise, of course, but it also looks as if it has a built-in public. I’m sure we’ll see a third film soon enough.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2015) It’s an unconventional compliment to say that a film is intensely uncomfortable to watch, but then again Hard Candy is the kind of unconventional film that covets this reaction. A thriller almost taking place in a single location between two characters, Hard Candy pairs off a creepy photographer who may or may not have something to do with the death of a young girl, and a teenage vigilante with psychological terror on her mind. Castration is involved, so male viewers will spend much of the film with their legs crossed. A curious (and frustrating) lack of wide shots reinforces the hermetic claustrophobia of the film, which often feels like an intense ping-pong match between skilled players. Patrick Wilson makes a mark as the creepy photographer (fortunately, he has since had enough roles to avoid typecasting), but it’s Ellen Paige who earns almost all of the attention (despite a few too-showy moments) as a driven teenage avenger. Hard Candy is very effective and successful at meeting its goals, but viewers may be forgiven for thinking that the film is a bit too long, and finding out that there’s not really any character to feel sympathy for. Combined with the unsettling cinematography, Hard Candy thus remains a bit distant –which may not be a bad thing given the intensity of its thrills.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I seldom want to throw things at my TV during closing credits, but then again most movies aren’t as frustrating as Space Station 76. I’ll admit that part of my frustration has to do with expectations: Nearly everything about the film’s marketing, from the title to the trailer to the poster to the premise, suggests a light-hearted ironic spoof far lighter than what we get here… because after only a few minutes, it becomes glaringly obvious that we are stuck in the saddest indie-drama imaginable. As Space Spation 76 goes forward, the laughs never come: instead, we are prisoners of a bleak drama about crushing isolation, unhappiness and narcissistic characters. The Science Fiction elements are not used with any rigor or invention, and the comedy goes way past humiliation into depression. Fair enough; I wouldn’t be the first time marketing would sell an entirely different movie than what it is. But what kills Space Station 76 isn’t mismatched expectations, but unfulfilled potential. The film is bleak from beginning to end, and some sequences would be hard to stomach under any circumstances. But the ending doesn’t actually resolve anything: it basically fades to black without much hope for the relatively small number of sympathetic characters imprisoned with the crazy ones. People with sensitivities toward kids stuck in bad situation will be particularly infuriated by the Space Station 76’s refusal to provide closure. But then again, most people will be frustrated by the film, no qualifiers needed. As much as I usually like Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson… I don’t usually go out of my way to suggest people should avoid a movie, but –again- I’ll make an exception for this one.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) The horror genre has a long history of great films leading to so-so sequels, and Insidious 2 is now part of that tradition. Insidious made a mark partly by being one of the first good American horror movie in a while that wasn’t trying to rely on found-footage tropes, and it heralded a number of similar or better movies in its wake, from Sinister to The Conjuring. Still, it wasn’t without its flaws, and this sequel seems to dwell at length on those less successful aspects while throwing in a number of old clichés. Oh, so a cross-dressing serial killer is the big bad guy of the series? Let me get my fainting salts. In overall impact, Insidious 2 cranks down the dial from Good to Average with far more conventional thrills and a familiar formula. (Keep in mind, though, that the titular “Chapter 2” is there for a reason: this is absolutely not a stand-alone sequel, and it is best seen immediately after the first film.) There are still plenty of things to like –including going back in time to explain goose-bumps from the first film, acknowledging its own absurdity with a well-placed “So that’s what it was all about”, an effective jump-shot explaining what the phantom piano-playing meant, and finding a more-than-adequate younger counterpart for Lin Shaye in Lindsay Seim. Shaye once again steals the spotlight during her short appearance, while Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do what is expected of them (though Wilson has a harder dual role to manage). Meanwhile, director James Wan continues to perfect his technique: this follow-up is a bit less blunt in its scares than its predecessor. By the time the shock-ending title card rolls around, we’ve seen enough to be entertained, but not quite enough to be impressed: Insidious 2 gets credits for being an acceptable follow-up, but it’s far more ordinary that it should have been.
(On DVD, October 2014) Having missed Insidious in theaters, then on DVD, then on Cable TV even as its reputation grew as a good example of recent American horror, I found myself playing catch-up late at night, finally finding out for myself was the fuss was about. As it turns out, Insidious isn’t too bad, but director James Wan’s follow-up The Conjuring is a bit better and thus retroactively colors Insidious‘ impact. Both movies have similar starting points, with families in new houses being imperilled by demonic forces and semi-professional helpers coming to help them. But it’s the execution that counts, and while The Conjuring did well with a soft-spoken acceleration of horrors, Insidious is quite a bit blunter in how it marks scares with big musical stings. Much of the first hour feels conventional, as innocent people (and audiences) are progressively spooked by strange happenings. But there are hints that something weirder is at play, and by the time the last half-hour moves from haunted house to possessed bodies to astral travel, Insidious becomes interesting in ways that most horror movies third acts usually don’t. Still, that final half-hour is also in many ways the silliest, as the film’s ambitions run against its budget, and the literalization of some metaphors (coupled with a more frenetic rhythm) doesn’t quite work as intended. Once the monster is to be shown, part of the mystique disappears. Still, it’s quite a bit better than your average horror movie, and it benefits from a couple of good performances: Patrick Wilson is fine as the everyday-man protagonist with a secret, while Rose Byrne delivers exactly the expected as the suffering wife, but it’s really Lin Shaye who steals the spotlight as a paranormal expert who knows far too much. Effective scares and jumps and creepy hints all cleverly pepper the film, and the result is enjoyable. Still, in retrospect Insidious may be most noteworthy as a bridge to other better films, from Sinister to The Conjuring.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) There’s something to be said for a well-executed horror film even when it doesn’t try to reinvent the genre or leave the viewers with permanent trauma. So it is that The Conjuring harkens back to simpler times, when ordinary people were imperilled by supernatural horrors and extraordinary people could come to help them out. Here, the Perron family (two adults, five daughters) finds itself threatened by demonic forces shortly after moving into a dilapidated farmhouse in 1971. Financially desperate and concerned by increasing signs of evil, they call upon paranormal investigators to investigate and hopefully solve the case with minimal loss of life. It’s as basic a premise for a horror film as can be, but there’s a lot to be said for director James Wan’s approach to the material and the quality of the script: from the first few moments, The Conjuring is carefully controlled, beguiling in the way it sets up its characters, creepy in showing us the setting and well-accomplished in its visuals. We’re never comfortable, especially when the characters are so sympathetic. (Lili Taylor has a substantial role as the matriarch while Ron Livingstone plays dutiful husband, but it’s Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga who are most compelling as the Warrens, carefully inhabiting roles halfway between credible people and unflappable demon-hunters.) Like an un-ironic old-school classic, The Conjuring carefully ramps up its creepiness into chills into scares into full-blown horror… and remarkably enough without showing much gore, nudity or profanity. There’s nothing really new here (nor is there much in terms of thematic depth), but in horror even more than in other genres, execution is key and this film nails down the fundamentals. It works even better as an antidote for routine horror movies that fail to even provide the basic scares. Even the comforting finale is exactly what the film (and the characters) needed. Throw The Conjuring in with films such as Sinister and its prototype Insidious, and you’ve got a good argument for an ongoing revival of good American mainstream horror.