Movie Review ~ The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren fight for the soul of a young boy, taking them beyond anything they’d ever seen before and marking the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Who ever could have imagined that a scare masterpiece as impressive as 2013’s The Conjuring could have created two such unlikely super(natural)heroes like Ed and Lorraine Warren?  Nearly a decade later, the God-fearing duo based on the real-life paranormal investigators have appeared in five movies set within The Conjuring Universe, successfully kicking off a cottage industry of scares that could expand as large as their filing cabinet of cases will allow.  Going from the academic demonologists called in by a family living in a house of horrors of the first film to the ghost hunting detectives pursued by demons and the occult in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Warrens could very well be the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the horror landscape.

It’s been five years since the Warrens have had a proper film and some changes have been made during that time.  For starters, James Wan (Insidious) took a step back from the director’s seat, allowing The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves to take over and continue the franchise flagship Wan started. The Conjuring 2 screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) is back but wisely steps away from detailing another haunted house case after the overstuffed sequel from 2016 incorporated Amityville and the Enfield poltergeist — too much of a good thing.  There’s also an interesting decision to ever-so slightly side-step events for the Warrens in The Nun as well as Annabelle Comes Home, which should be called Annabelle Comes A-Conjurin’ since it is all about the Warrens and their youngest child, played there by McKenna Grace and not Sterling Jerins who has the role in all three Conjuring films. 

That brings us to the newest film, set in 1981 which pits the Warrens up against a demon that first appears in the body of a little boy during the rattling prologue and then in Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), his sister’s boyfriend, after the young man foolishly welcomes the entity in as a last ditch effort to save the tormented child.  During this climactic switcheroo, Ed (Patrick Wilson, Midway) suffers a health scare and is sidelined and unresponsive for a stretch.  This allows for enough time to pass that Arne and his girlfriend Diane (Sarah Catherine Hook, Monsterland) can get back to their normal life working for a dog kennel alongside its drunk proprietor. 

As Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, The Commuter) stands vigil for her ailing husband, Arne begins to exhibit strange visions and feels a presence not just near him but within him.  As this evil gets closer and deeper, the line between what is real to Arne and what is imagined get blurred.  Then, just as Ed is waking but before the Warrens can reach out with a warning, something takes over Arne and he winds up in jail for murder.  On trial and facing capital punishment if convicted, he seeks help from the Warrens to prove his demonic possession defense, the first of its kind.  Feeling responsible not just for the murder but the original botched exorcism that helped the demon find Arne, Ed and Lorraine launch their own investigation into the case to discover how the monster found its way into the initial host to begin with.  What they uncover involves more dead bodies, witch’s curses, human sacrifice, lots of candles, and the kind of sleuthing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby-Doo mystery.

Don’t read that last statement as a dig at the screenplay from Johnson-McGoldrick.  The story that Wan provided feels like the sequel that should have come after the first film, one that truly gives the Warrens room to grow a bit more.  Whereas The Conjuring 2 was more about the traditional “bigger” sequel gains (don’t forget about that head-scratching long pause for Wilson to strum a guitar and sing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’) it didn’t move any pieces forward in as significant a way as they are here.  True, there are far more liberties taken with the story than anyone would care to admit, but the fabricated storyline pairs nicely with the real-life tale of Arne Johnson’s case.

There’s also something sort of fun about watching Wilson and Farmiga, both pushing 50, awkwardly snooping around like these types of academics-first would.  While both could easily pull off a lead in an action film, neither turn the Warrens into warriors once they launch into action.  Ed still gets winded after his illness and walks with a cane and Lorraine always wears the loudest and frilliest of blouses, boxiest of pants, and most modest of skirts.  (Side note: there are a few outfits Farmiga dons that I swear are meant to test the audience’s laugh response…but darn it if Farmiga doesn’t wear the absolute heck out of them!)  Wilson has gotten used to playing second banana in most films and that’s his sweet spot, he’s that person and he excels at it.  To try to grasp for something more would feel like he’s taking more than he needs, and Farmiga definitely doesn’t need his help commanding the screen. Arguably the central focus of all the films in one way or another, Farmiga’s character always runs the risk of coming off as insincere because she’s always so sure of herself and her intuitiveness but it’s only an actress of Farmiga’s caliber that can carry off this type of material and not have it feel goopy.

It’s nice to see carryover characters from previous films and viewers with keen eyes will spot a few familiar trinkets along the way, not to mention deep cut callbacks to preceding movies if you want to take the time to connect those dots.  Often in these mystery-oriented films I tend to find them less interesting the more we find out answers but The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It managed to get more engaging as it went along.  Helping this is Chaves who keeps the film tight and taut by not repeating the scares in similar scenes ad nauseum.  Instead of having large set-pieces that present some looming terror for the Warrens (and the audience) as they move through it (think the water-logged basement in the sequel), Chaves prefers to unleash his scares without much advance warning.  This makes for an exciting watch that’s rarely, if ever, boring, or slow.

I know the film had a post-credit scene that was removed, rumored to set the stage for additional cases to be opened.  Taking this out is a strange move to make considering the number of cases the Warrens were involved with that have yet to be told.  Even if the filmmakers wanted to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It the end of an unofficial (now official?) trilogy, there is still room to leave the door ajar, if not fully open.  While the movie has a satisfying ending, it does feel like something is missing…like a breath was taken but never exhaled. 

Movie Review ~ Aquaman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.

Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Ludi Lin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In some ways, you have to have a little sympathy for the folks running the show over at DC Studios/Warner Brothers. Despite a strong run with their original Batman franchise and then Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, they’ve struggled mightily with finding their footing in future films. Man of Steel was a complex origin story that was ultimately too cool to the touch, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was savaged by critics even though it wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone remembers it to be, and Suicide Squad was just outright garbage. Then a minor miracle happened in the excellent Wonder Woman and it seemed like the beleaguered studio had learned their lesson and turned a corner…only to have those hopes dashed a few months later with the release of the box office turd Justice League.

Well, it’s been a year and another DC stand-alone superhero movie has come swimming along in the hopes it can make some waves in what has up until now been a fairly shallow pond. While Aquaman has its regrettable missteps and its fair share of groan-worthy dialogue, it’s not enough to sink it to the bottom of the DC ocean thanks to a director that brings a unique style and an eclectic cast willing to go the distance for some overly fishy material.

Though we’ve met Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) briefly in BvS and Justice League, this is his first time taking center stage which means part of the film mandates that this is his origin story. When his father (Temuera Morrison) rescues a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman, Stoker) from the sea, he doesn’t know she’s a sea princess from Atlantis on the run from an arranged marriage to a rival king. The two fall in love and have a son before Atlanna is forced to abandon her family and return to the sea in order to protect them. Flash forward twenty-some years and Atlanna’s son has grown into a man of rippling muscles and tribal tattoos that can communicate with sea creatures and swim faster than a speeding torpedo. He’s also invincible to most mortal weapons, as evidenced in an opening battle between pirates aboard a hijacked submarine. The events that take place here will create the genesis of Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Greatest Showman), an enemy for Aquaman who will haunt him throughout the film.

Meanwhile, fathoms below the sea a plot is being hatched by Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, The Nun) who seeks to become the all-powerful Ocean Master by joining forces with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, The Expendables 2) and dominating the underwater kingdoms by any means necessary. When Mera (Amber Heard, The Danish Girl), Nereus’s daughter gets wind of the plan she reaches out to Aquaman for his help in returning to Atlantis, defeating his brother, and claiming the throne that is rightfully his. After a lifetime of turning his back on the undersea nation he feels took his mother away from him, helping out his people isn’t high on Aquaman’s list of priorities.

At 143 minutes and with multiple storylines to follow, Aquaman is certainly ambitious in his first time going it alone. Even if the script from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall doesn’t contain the same type of rousing origin story executed so well in Wonder Woman, there’s a nice flow to the first and third acts of the film. It’s the second act where Aquaman and Mera start to globe-trot in search of a lost trident and are pursued by Manta where things start to get a little choppy. I get why the Manta storyline was included (stay through the credits to find out why) but it just felt extraneous to everything else going on in the film. Chucking all that and focusing on the contained story about Aquman’s conflict with his brother would have been enough to fuel the movie just fine.

Like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, the movie succeeds largely on the screen magnetism of Momoa as Aquaman. While he relies too often on his hair and an over the shoulder glance to do most of the work for him, by the time he’s donned the famous orange and green Aquaman suit he had more than convinced me that he’s a born action star. Sadly, Heard is a bit of a dud as his leading lady as is Wilson who literally treads water for most of his scenes. There’s some unfortunate de-aging scenes with Morrison and especially Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) as an emissary of Atlantis playing both sides which actually make both men look like they’re motion captured holograms instead of flesh and blood actors. Kidman is really the one that makes the biggest impression in her short amount of screen time. The Oscar winning actress is at the point in her career where she can take whatever role she wants and this one seems like it was a choice made out of pure moviemaking fun. She strikes the right tone and never falls prey (like many of her costars) to take things to a heightened sense of camp even during moments like when she has a goldfish tail sticking out of her mouth.

Bringing in director James Wan (The Conjuring) was a smart move on the part of Warner Brothers. The director has a recognizable filmmaking calling card and it’s clear from the beginning of the movie that this picture is being overseen by a director interested in doing something different. Odd camera angles, carefully designed long-shots, and sequences that seem to jump over impossible obstacles in one smooth tracking shot are all Wan staples and they’re used to great effect here. Add to that some awesome visual effect work (see the film in 3D if possible…and I don’t say that lightly) and a retro-feeling synth-heavy score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Blended) and you get a DC picture that actively tries to separate itself from the pack. Even if it doesn’t always work, it at least fails while trying hard and not by comparison to the films that came before it.

Now that this first Aquaman film is out of the way and with no other Justice League movies in the pipeline, I’m hoping that DC/Warner Brothers gets to work on a sequel and quickly. Feel free to take your time like Wonder Woman 1984 (due in 2020) is doing but now that Wan and company have established the world of Arthur Curry/Aquaman, they have a whole ocean of possibilities on where to take the next chapter.