Movie Review ~ The Conjuring 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Is it as good as the first?  That’s the question you really came here for, right?  Any sequel to the 2013 fright delight The Conjuring had an uphill battle from the get go and everyone onboard The Conjuring 2 knows it.  Instead of fast-tracking the sequel for the very next year, director James Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes took their time in crafting their follow-up based again on the casefiles of paranormal pariahs The Warrens.  While it doesn’t quite creep its way past the original it rests comfortably in the spooky shadow of its predecessor.

Like the original, the pre-credit sequence of The Conjuring 2 finds the audience in the middle of one of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s famous cases.  This one is going to mighty familiar to fans of a certain series of films involving a haunted house in upstate New York…and it’s a clever way to sneak another franchise in without simply rehashing its oft-told tale. It’s during a séance that Lorriane sees a vision that will haunt her (and us) for the next 130 minutes as the Warrens travel to London where another family needs their help.

The structure of the film is entirely familiar as its nearly the same set-up as the first: Normal family experiences strange happenings that they ignore for a while until they need assistance from the Warren ghostbusting squad.  Hey, if it ain’t broke or boring, why fix it.

The family in fear this time around is a working class single mother and her four children barely getting by. Their council house is spacious but grimy with water-stained walls, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster. Don’t forget the creepy basement half flooded with rainwater that of course is the setting for one of Wan’s deviously scary sequences.  With the haunting mostly centered around a pre-teen girl (Madison Wolfe, Trumbo, displaying an iron-will resolve and ghostly eyes), the media soon seizes the sensational new story of the family, which catches the eye of the church who give their old pals the Warrens a call.

Even more than the first one, The Conjuring 2 stresses the religious angle of the Warrens assistance.  Employed by the church to investigate/debunk possessions and hauntings, the Warrens are God-fearing people that believe their talents are meant to be in service to the church. They’re not Bible beating snake charmers but they do take their roles very seriously…and so do the actors portraying them.

I still find Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) a bit on the bland side but he’s fleshed out a bit more this time around, mostly because he’s part of a terrifying vision Lorraine is trying to decipher before it’s too late.  Vera Farmiga (The Judge) is again the star of the show here, displaying the deepest of sincerity even when she’s speaking some of the hokier lines that populate the final third of the film.

Most horror films, especially sequels, don’t take much time in re-establishing returning characters, let alone any new ones but Wan and the Hayes brothers indulge a bit too much in the over-development of the people at play. How else to explain an extended sequence where Ed strums a guitar and has an Elvis sing-along with the family they’re helping while Lorraine looks on moon-faced and starry eyed?  It’s a strange sequence that doesn’t add much to the thrust of the picture but gives Broadway-vet Wilson a chance to show off his singing skills.  Still, I’ll always take fully realized characters fighting evil instead of fratboy airheads that get sliced and diced alongside their bimbo babe girlfriends.

What do a freaky as hell nun, a crusty old geezer, a storybook ghoul, and an overstuffed leather chair have in common?  They’re all tools that Wan uses quite effectively to scare the ever lovin’ daylights out of audiences and for the most part he succeeds.  Once again with interesting camera angles helping to keep viewers off balance, Wan brings on the gooseflesh early and keeps those bumps raised for much of the film. The big scares come during scenes that already have you on the edge of your seat and I saw quite a few heads bopping up over seats when Wan hit with the big whammy’s.  The scares don’t come cheap, though, and it builds to an effective climax which manages to send you off into the night shuddering.

The Warrens have huge casefiles and I can see more films coming from Wan/Wilson/Farmiga. I’m for sure onboard for more if all involved stick with it and keep true to the root scares that feel so good. With a  sequel to the spin-off Annabelle arriving next year, they have some time to think things through but on the next outing I hope things can be tightened up a bit.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring 2

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Synopsis: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Release Date:  June 10, 2016

Thoughts: A follow-up to his supreme 2013 fright fest, director James Wan (Furious 7) returns with stars Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) and Vera Farmiga (The Judge) as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.  With a filing cabinet full of The Warrens cases on which to base the sequel (including a stop in at that famous house in Amityville), it’s nice to see Wan and company go international in search of spookier scares. Though this first look is billed as a “teaser”, it runs around two and a half minutes and manages to pack in some dandy macabre morsels. The first film scared the pants off of me but I’m crossing my fingers that Wan’s sequel doesn’t suffer the same fate as the lackluster spin-off Annabelle and Insidious: Chapter 2, the disappointing continuation of Wan’s breakout hit Insidious.

Movie Review ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I’ve said time and time again in this here blog it’s that Tom Cruise knows how to deliver a spectacular action film.  Off-screen antics aside, Cruise proves with each new release that he knows how to build off of his strengths and give the audience what they came for.  Never less than 100% committed to the work (see his bold turn in the otherwise blah Rock of Ages), he’s best when he’s going the extra mile.

That being said, for this fifth installment of the TV show turned blockbuster franchise I felt that Cruise and company didn’t take as strong a step forward as they did with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  That film felt fresh, with a renewed interest in inventive action sequences coupled with an intriguing plot of crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses.  Cruise tried out some cool stunt work and director Brad Bird produced a nice mix of over the top action and sly spy work.

With Bird off directing Tomorrowland, Cruise brought old pal Christopher McQuarrie into M:I5 and that’s where some problems surfaced.  All four previous installments had brought Cruise together with different directors he had no prior shorthand, but this is the first time Cruise is working with a director he has history with.  McQuarrie wrote 2008’s Valkyrie and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow for Cruise and wrote/directed the underappreciated Jack Reacher back in 2012.

So what we have is a star and a writer/director that kinda already had it all figured out before starting up production and the final effect feels like an overly safe but still better than average film that could have been great.  No matter how many of his own stunts he was reported to have performed himself, Cruise isn’t challenged much by McQuarrie to truly push the limits so the resulting movie feels slightly tentative and more in service of protecting the profitable franchise instead of doing something truly original.

Not that McQuarrie’s script is your run-of-the-mill spy tale.  Sure, there’s a lot of intrigue to go along with the spy movie checklist items but it’s more intelligent than its predecessors and aims high in covering a lot of thoughts and ideas.  Each previous Mission: Impossible film has had its share of twists and turns and this is no different, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that even when the plot points feel rehashed from similar films they still manage to be effectively entertaining.

Building off of an idea introduced in the final moments of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation starts with Ethan Hunt and his IMF (Impossible Missions Force) compatriots attempting to prevent a stash of nuclear armaments from falling into the hands of the shadowy organization known as The Syndicate.  At the same time, the future of the IMF is called into question by a high ranking government official (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, doing his best impression of Alec Baldwin) and soon Hunt becomes a wanted man by The Syndicate and his own government.  Teaming with a skilled agent with a questionable allegiance (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules), Hunt hops around the globe in search of the head of The Syndicate (rat-faced Sean Harris, Prometheus, a mostly forgettable villain).  Saying more of the serpentine plot would take up too much room here but suffice it to say that the quest isn’t easy and more than a few lies will be told along the way.

Where the film really excels is the breath-taking stunt work.  From the opening airplane sequence (already more than a little spoiled by the trailer and poster) to an underwater operation to thwart a complex security system to an edge of your seat motorcycle chase through the Moroccan desert, the film is a must-see on the biggest screen possible.  I didn’t catch it in IMAX but will seek out a screening later to really appreciate the scale of the work that went into these stunts that are more than worth the price of admission.

While Cruise may be the star of the show, Ferguson manages to swipe the film right out from under him.  Previous movies have placed the females as little more than damsels in distress (no matter if they’re trained super agents or not), but Ferguson represents a character that’s Hunt’s equal in every way.  Sure, her presence in a variety of skin baring costumes gives Cruise and audience members something to swoon over but McQuarrie wisely keeps it all business, adding to her mystery.  We never really know quite what side she’s on, so we never know what to expect when she appears onscreen,

While I’ve loved Simon Pegg’s work as a supporting cast member in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and two previous Mission: Impossible films, it was an unfortunate mistake to beef up his role here as Cruise’s nervous ally within IMF.  Sure, he’s a valued element of comic relief but he’s made too much of a central figure here, taking time away from Cruise, Ferguson, and the forward motion of the plot.  It’s not all Pegg’s fault, but I’m sure Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Ving Rhames (Won’t Back Down) would have liked a little more screen time of their own.

I felt like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol heralded the start of a new chapter of Ethan Hunt and the IMF and thankfully that’s continued here in Rogue Nation.  I do, however, wonder whatever happened to Paula Patton from Ghost Protocol, and Maggie Q from #3…not to mention Hunt’s wife (Michelle Monaghan, briefly seen at the end of the last film).  I kept hoping for a hint at what’s to come next but sadly the film leaves us with more questions than answers.  I’m invested enough in the series to keep accepting future Missions…but hope that the next outing feels a bit more challenging.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Synopsis: Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several blogging years defending Tom Cruise. There’s a faction of audience members that can’t get past Cruise’s religious beliefs, wacky couch jumping tendencies, and somewhat self-aggrandizing attitude. Still…here’s the thing…the man knows how to make a movie. In fact, I’d say that Cruise has energetically come out of a mid-career slump of outings that were too serious and “important” and settled nicely into delivering popcorn chomping ready events that highlight his strengths. A lot of that renaissance was firmly cemented with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — maybe the franchise’s most enjoyable outing yet. I’ve got a good feeling about 2015’s upcoming fifth installment of Cruise’s spy series…and apparently so does Paramount Pictures. The studio moved it up from a prime Christmas Day release to an end of the summer bow that could be perfect time for box office gold. Reteaming Cruise (Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow) with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack the Giant Slayer) and with familiar faces (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) returning and a new beauty (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules) on board this is one mission I’m more than happy to accept.

Movie Review ~ The Theory of Everything

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney

Director: James Marsh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  At the center of The Theory of Everything is a Hallmark Hall of Fame film just dying to get out.  It seems to have all the ingredients of those celebrated television movies that pile on the need for Kleenex with each successive commercial break.  You have the story of resilience against all odds, the power of love against all odds, and the will to effect positive change…against all odds.  Each of these pieces is covered at some point or another in Anthony McCarten’s workmanlike script and while less cynical audiences will easily gobble up this bit of fluff, I found it hard to let myself get sucked into that blackhole of saccharine.

So why the relatively high rating, you may ask?  Well, it’s because what The Theory of Everything has (in addition to a parade of scenes that feel as if they should end with the populace onscreen starting a slow-clap that ends in a rousing furor of applause) is not one but two award-worthy performances that easily make the film worth recommending.

As physicist Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) takes us from the wallflower schoolboy with a knack for solving impossible mathematical equations all the way through to the man that battles a degenerative nerve disease that leaves him unable to walk or talk.  It’s a tricky performance that Redmayne carefully navigates, giving us a look at not only the effect the disease has on Hawking’s body but on his spirit.  Twisted limbs and a skewed stance was likely murder on Redmayne’s body but the effect is totally believable on screen.

Though she has no physical ailments to portray, as Jane Hawking young Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) has possibly an even more difficult character to bring to life.  I think it’s easy for audiences to see a disability on screen and be cued into what’s happening under the surface but Jane’s resolve to stand by her man is colored with sacrifice but never resentment.  Take an early scene where Jane makes it clear that she expects the boy she loves to not give up in the face of his diagnosis and play, of all things, croquet.  In one powerhouse shot we see her see him as he struggles but soldiers on and her face tells us she knows what the years to come will bring…and the precise moment when she goes all-in for her love.  It’s maybe one of the best scenes in any movie from 2014.

Even with these two wonderful performances the film never strikes a deep chord, though it does manage to pack in quite a lot concerning the lives of the couple in less than two hours.  Depending on how you look at it, the film has either a happy or a sad ending and being the glass half full kinda guy I am I chose to see the moments that book-end the biopic as a mature, honest, realization of the Hawkings.  I just wish as a whole the film was as complete as the performances from Redmayne and Jones.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Theory of Everything

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Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: A film about the life of Stephen Hawking and his wife could, in the wrong hands, be the stuff of gauzy melodrama, the kind of film you’d see during the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations on a rainy fall night (note: I do love the Hallmark Hall of Fame). Viewing the trailer for The Theory of Everything it appears that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have taken Jane Hawking’s book and brought it to the screen with gentle care for its emotional core. Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) is generating serious Oscar buzz for his performance as the brilliant astrophysicist diagnosed with an ALS-like motor neuron disease. Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is his wife Jane who accompanies him on his journey to a new understanding of life and how far love can take you. Though it must be noted Hawking and Jane divorced in 1995 (the same year he remarried…) I can see audiences being swept away by the overarching themes of love being the greatest victory.

Movie Review ~ Magic in the Moonlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Stars: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Paul Ritter, Jeremy Shamos

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If Magic in the Moonlight had been made by anyone other than Woody Allen I think I would have scored it lower because ultimately the movie is very simple, inconsequential, light entertainment that once seen quickly evaporates like a summer breeze as you exit the theater.  Still, it’s an Allen film through and through so I find myself giving the prolific director a great deal of slack because while it may not be as layered with dramatic nuance as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, it does find the director working comfortably in his element.

The period comedy set in the 20s is as light-hearted as they come, with a plot that feels straight out of a thin paperback novel that itself is part of a larger series of adventures.  An English magician (Colin Firth, Devil’s Knot) in Berlin, performing under the un-PC moniker Wei Ling Soo, is tempted to the French Riviera by a colleague (Simon McBurney) to help prove a young psychic (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is a fake.  The psychic has convinced a wealthy woman (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) of her gifts and caught the eye of her ukulele playing love struck son (Hamish Linklater) while staying at their gossamer villa with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and conducting the odd séance in between high tea and scones.  Into the mix comes the doubtful magician and before you know it, he too is wrapped up under her spell…but is it all just an elaborate ruse?

Going down like a chilled glass of champagne, Magic in the Moonlight is mostly bubbles, only going flat in the far reaches of its last act when the charm starts to wear off.  Explanations always ruin an illusion so the more the characters talk, the less interesting they all become.  Still, it takes a while to get to that place so it’s best to put your feet up and let Allen’s comedy wash over you.

As Allen (Radio Days, Fading Gigolo) nears his fiftieth feature film, it’s truly amazing how he’s able to churn out a movie year after year.  True, they may not all be winners but he’s moving away from his pattern of having solid gold with every third film.  Yes, Magic in the Moonlight lacks the depth of Blue Jasmine but who really cares?  The two films couldn’t be more different, just as Blue Jasmine was different from the film that it followed (To Rome With Love).  Allen’s filmmaking style is instantly recognizable and goes by the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it so production design, costumes, and musical cues are all keeping with Allen’s eye for detail.

Already working on her next Allen film set for release in 2015, Stone may be Allen’s new muse (replacing Scarlett Johansson) and her crisp delivery meshes well with Allen’s dialogue.  Though her possible romance with Firth seemed a little too May-December for my tastes, the two actors chum it up well in their scenes together, with Firth thankfully unwinding a bit from his more serious roles as of late.  As Firth’s aunt, Eileen Atkins (Beautiful Creatures) gets some nice zingers in and seems to be enjoying herself quite a lot.

It’s a bauble of a film that serves as nice counterprogramming for those exhausted from a summer of explosions, aliens, lizards, and transforming robots.  Yeah, it’s easily forgotten but it could be just the laid-back kind of entertainment you’re looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Magic in the Moonlight

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Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: My thoughts and feelings about writer/director Woody Allen’s personal troubles aside, it’s hard to deny that he had a most impressive 2013 with the slam-dunk of Blue Jasmine. Not only was Cate Blanchett’s performance of the Oscar she was awarded, Allen’s script (a veiled re-working of A Streetcar Named Desire) was sparkling and en pointe. Now Allen (who is in front of the camera on the recently released Fading Gigolo) takes a page from Noel Coward in the Blithe Spirit-y comedy Magic in the Moonlight which seems to be the traditional lightweight comedy he typically follows a more dramatic film with. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Colin Firth (Paddington) seem right at home with the period and while it’s true that any bad movie can be made more interesting with a well-cut trailer, I have my eye on this one as a late summer refresher.