(On Cable TV, June 2019) As a political junkie, I’m a natural audience for the kind of political docufiction such as The Front Runner—which joins the slew of HBO political movies, and similar titles such as Shock and Awe. But let’s be careful—The Front Runner is a dissection of the Gary Hart adultery scandal of 1988 without much of a political axe to grind, except for looking at the inner workings of a campaign in crisis mode, as a sympathetic candidate is ultimately brought down by an affair. The good news is that the film can boast of an impressive cast (an older Hugh Jackman, and fine character work by Vera Farmiga and J. K. Simmons), a competent director (Jason Reitman, keeping the mayhem moving at an understandable pace) and some good production values taking us back to 1988. There are a few good moments despite the story being chronologically rearranged for impact and a few crucial details (such as Hart’s comeback campaign a few months later) being left unmentioned. But The Front Runner does have issues. In having to follow facts, it does run out of narrative steam in its last act as the candidate can’t quite grasp the trouble he’s in, and all that’s left after the mid-movie confrontations and investigative work are the recriminations and the throwing of the towel. Perhaps more problematic is the film’s thematic development—considering that much of the last act is a back-and-forth between a sympathetic candidate and a combative media, it’s a natural occasion to examine questions of ethics, monogamy, or whether personal issues affect leadership. Alas, that’s when the film turns ambivalent, neither arguing forcefully for a position nor making points that would be relevant to a contemporary audience. (Considering a current administration that’s so stained with overlapping scandals that none of them seem to stick, there would have been a golden opportunity here to make relevant parallels.) The Front Runner ends up feeling non-committed, muddled, anticlimactic. As a political junkie, I still like it… but there was a better movie here trying to get out—even if it does get some recognition for not straying too far away from the facts.
(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 Farmiga 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.
(On TV, May 2015) Jamie Collet-Serra doesn’t have the name recognition of other directors, but a quick look at his short filmography already reveals a propensity for stylish thrillers with an element of pure madness –an insane twist, tortured plotting, preposterous revelations and/or a healthy helping of Liam Neeson. Neeson may not be in Orphan, but the film is otherwise right in line with his subsequent Unknown or Non-Stop. It’s, in some ways, a standard evil-child horror film: After a family adopts a young girl, they come to realize that the girl is evil beyond her years, and that they are all in danger. So far so good (albeit boo for the anti-adoption agitprop), except for the last-third twist, which turns the film gleefully insane even as it answers the objection “Gee, that’s an awfully precocious hellion!” The conclusion is purely out of slasher movies, but the rest of the film is generally well-executed, with enough thrills and portentous gloom to keep things interesting. Isabelle Fuhrman is fantastic as the pint-sized antagonist, whereas Vera Farmiga (who can be unremarkable at times) here scores a gripping performance. CCH Pounder also makes an impression, even though her role isn’t much more than a disposable expositionary device. Orphan may be striking because of its twist, but it’s competently made and while it’s not destined to be a classic, it’s a good-enough thriller/hybrid, the likes of which we should see more often.
(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.
(In theaters, April 2011) I wasn’t as fond of Duncan Jones’ Moon as a lot of people were, but I was really interested in seeing his follow-up effort, and Source Code does not disappoint. The theme of the deceived protagonist is still there, the setting is just as constrained and the scientific premises is just as wobbly (not to mention a nonsensical title), but Jones here has a bigger budget, a bigger concept, bigger stars and a faster pace. Ben Ripley’s disaster-movie premise script is ingenious, but it’s paired with other well-paced revelations and the interweaving of both plotlines is effectively achieved. Jake Gyllenhaal is hitting his stride as a heroic protagonist, with good supporting work from Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and a halting Jeffrey Wright. Still, the real star here is writer/director Jones, who delivers a fast, clever and entertaining film with some depth and artful gloss. The ending manages to be elegiac and optimistic at once, and provides a surprising amount of thematic depth for what could have easily been a straight-up genre exercise. We don’t get quite enough SF movies like Source Code, but given the boost it will give to Jones’ career, chances are that we will get a few more.
(In theaters, December 2009) Hollywood is so often geared to kids, teens and family that film made for an adult audience are now rare enough to be remarkable. So it is that this tale of a professional downsizer confronting professional distress and personal attachment is perhaps more enjoyable for its change of pace than for what it actually delivers. George Clooney is splendid as a protagonist who comes to reconsider a lifetime of non-attachment, and he has the good fortune of playing against two actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, who do just as well in their own roles: The best scene of the film is a simple three-way conversation in a hotel lobby. The script itself (which bears only a passing similarity to Walter Kirn’s original novel) seems to be exactly in tune with the times, in-between massive layoffs and widespread hatred of commercial airlines. Many of the film’s individual moments are oddly amusing, the peek at the life on an ultra-frequent-traveler is interesting and there are clear echoes of Juno in the off-kilter structure of writer/director Jason Reitman’s script. (Not to mention much of Thank you for Smoking in its cynical premise.) But there also seems to be an upper limit to Up in the Air’s effectiveness, and the lacklustre third act has something to do with it: After a lengthy detour in Wisconsin, the script more or less goes back to business but studiously avoids wrapping up its threads. Writer/director Jason Reitman would rather drag things on long enough to diffuse the impact of a more definitive ending, then ends up apparently one of two scenes too early. Sure, the point is informed character non-growth –which is gutsy enough at a time where “protagonist learns a lesson” is ingrained in Screenwriting 101. But the ending also deflates some of the film’s prevailing charm… leaving viewers, well, up in the air. Sometimes, even achieving one’s objective is criticism enough.