Monday, August 12, 2013

The Conjuring: The Exorcism of Docile Audiences

In recent years movie-goers have been possessed by shoddy horror films, more specifically that of the sub-genre of the supernatural movies. James Wan's The Conjuring is the liberating exorcism of these demonic, mundane, pieces of trash from our consciousness as it delivers us with something fresh from an old batch. It is a movie that will evoke all your childhood fears and let them resurface for a chilling two hours. The Conjuring is a great movie going experience and I contend it's the best Hollywood produced supernatural-thriller of the past twenty years and arguably since its grandaddy-The Exorcist (1973).

Director, James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence), has been working up to this his entire career and he has finally achieved it by throwing the sadism and gore out the window and beginning fresh with traditional horror storytelling. In no way am I condemning the gore of the new breed of splat-pack horror directors, that stuff is great. However, I do believe that audiences have become savvy to the blood and guts today just as they did for the supernatural at the turn of the century...or so we thought.

There have been a few commercial gems along the way, most notably the Paranormal Activity franchise. However, in cinematic terms it is far inferior to The Conjuring. With Paranormal Activity you have a film made with homemade footage and unknown actors to convey a more realistic environment, sort of like the reality television we are fed every day. Might be entertaining for a minute, but at the end of the day it is disposable trash. The series delivered on the "jump" scares, but without any true cinematic skill or illusion. It all seems to easy and in a way aren't they kind of cheating? On the other hand, we have The Conjuring, with well known stars in a stylised Hollywood setting convincing the audience of the horror that they are witnessing. In my eyes that is far more impressive.

The Conjuring is based on true events that occurred at an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1971. Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor & Ron Livingston) have moved from New Jersey with their five daughters. As the family begin to settle in, the suspicion, tension and suspense slowly builds up. The first major scare comes in a scene where Christine (Joey King) is awoken by her feet being pulled in bed. She wakes up startled and becomes terrified when she realises that it wasn't her sister Nancy (Hayley McFarland), who is seen fast asleep. Christine suddenly reaches the conclusion that we have known all along, that there is another presence within the house and it is very real. This is the best piece of acting in the film, her transcendence from regular life into the world of the unknown. Her body language and facial expressions are excellent.

The first time we actually see the demonic spirit in the physical is above a wardrobe in one of the girl's rooms. We know it is coming, but the way Wan delivers its presence still has us out of our seats. It is at this time in which the Perron family seek help from the practical and confident Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga), he a demonologist and her a clairvoyant. In order to save the Perron's they must investigate the house and give proof in order to have the Vatican abide an exorcism. This investigation eases up the suspense somewhat because now the family have support, but the history of the house that is uncovered is disturbing enough to keep the audience unsettled. The first half of the movie conjure up (shut up) great tension and suspense, but the last twenty minutes is a pure adrenaline rush in order to save this family. We get a storm, a creepy doll on the loose, a nod to Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), gunshots, and all the while delivered at a perfected pace. It was exhilarating to watch amongst a full theatre with people jumping, screaming, laughing and on the edge of their seats. There are few energetic horror experiences like it in recent years.

Wan doesn't bring anything new to the supernatural genre except for his perfected technique. The direction and camera movement here show a master at work. It is pure cinema where the camera gives us all we need to know, it creeps around the house up creaky stairs and down into pitch black basements, which helps create a heightened degree of suspense. I'm pretty sure I even jumped at the fucking thunder and lightening in this movie. The production design, costume and cinematography portray a great 1970s look. More then being a flawless horror movie in narrative and impeccable technique, The Conjuring has shown us something a lot more important. It has proven that we, the audience, are still capable of been scared and entertained through traditional cinematic attributes such as a strong story, great acting, depth in character, atmosphere and suspense. This is the real accomplishment of The Conjuring. 


*See it in a packed theatre.
*Preferably with a girl because she won't want to spend the night alone after.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Frances Ha: Stuck Between Stations

I sunk my fucking face into my palms during the first few minutes of Noam Baumbach's new black and white feature, Frances Ha. I thought I was in store for a 90 minute chick-buddy-indie flick, but as soon as Frances' best friend/roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves out, I let out a sigh of relief. From then on the film focuses on Frances (Greta Gerwig), a social leper with too much pride to admit her failures.

This movie contains no plot, but this is done intentionally. It jumps from scene to scene in Frances' life, a girl in her late twenties, stuck between the liberation of college and the responsibility of adult life. Her story is portrayed in the way we all see this period of life ; segments of nights out, domestic disputes, all the little anecdotes we tell our friends. This is not a precise narrative with a specific aim, its a portrayal of day to day life.

Because I'm at the same period of my life as Frances, I could relate to Frances' story, but the film need not rely on that. The style is that of a Bohemian Woody Allen with obvious nods to the French New Wave. One negative aspect, which even the lead star Gerwig questioned was the fact that, although the film looks great with its black and white format and attempts to sell itself as a Manhattan (1979), the reality is that it was shot digitally. This confession makes the aesthetic null and void, its just a digital copy and isn't exactly what it says on the tin.

There are genuine funny scenes here, mainly delivered through great conversation dialogue with perfect timing. The prime example of this lies in the scene where one of Frances male roommates has brought back a girl from the night before. Frances and her other male roommate join them at the breakfast table and the four of them just waffle on, speaking over each other in a realistic manner. It's like watching a tennis rally with the ball boy taking a swing now and again.

The soundtrack is upbeat with songs from David Bowie, Harry Nilsson and Hot Chocolate, even though Frances' world constantly disintegrates in front of her as all her friends advance in life she remains trapped financially, socially and motivationally. The  film's ending is positive, but not compromising in the way that the character Frances actually does compromise with adult life. Her dreams of becoming a professional dancer are trampled on and she must settle as a dance choreographer. However, she discovers that this job actually makes her happy and content. It would appear that she has advanced onto adulthood. Life doesn't necessarily work out the way you wish and that brings an element of surprise.

Again, there is an obvious homage to Woody Allen's New York in style and character. Frances is neurotic and socially awkward. She is does not follow the general conventions in which the majority do. She surrounds herself with hipsters in Brooklyn, which I thought would make me cringe, but they are funny and true in character. This film had the strong potential of coming off as a pretentious rip off, but the procrastination and indecisive nature of Frances makes it relatable to many.