Friday, 17 June 2016

The Conjuring 2

Rating: 3/5

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night, it seems more than likely that the Enfield Haunting was a load of cobblers. 

A hoax, not a poltergeist, probably set the pulses of the Hodgson family racing, in a suburban council house, between 1977 and 1979  media attention and teenage angst served to scare up a series of unexplained events that were as unsettling as they were false. Children 'levitating', alien voices, moving objects; many hallmarks of a spectral entity were on display. But for some deeper digging and a healthy dollop of skepticism, the whole thing might have been believed. 

Regardless of the Haunting's veracity, however, the tale, taken at face value, is an undoubtedly sinister one, ripe for cinematic exploitation. Thus, filmmaker James Wan's The Conjuring 2 builds, liberally, on reality's foundation, introducing an expensive franchise sequel to 2013's outstanding The Conjuring.

As with the latter film (which spawned a ropey spin-off, Annabelle), Wan centres his focus on the happenings in the enclosed intimacy of a strikingly normal household. General subject aside, the two pictures are connected by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), the married couple whose careers as paranormal investigators provide the necessary context for events occurring on either side of the Atlantic. 

Their involvement, in 1976, with the infamous Amityville case serves as a bridge, Wan's latest opening with a seance in the horribly iconic surroundings of the erstwhile Lutz homestead (introduced before the end of The Conjuring). The fallout from this prologue follows the Warrens throughout the remainder of the movie, its influence occasionally puzzling, though never less than disturbing. 

Tasked by Rome to discern the truth of the Enfield incidents — allowing the Church to intervene — the Warrens wade into the Hodgsons' disquiet, armed with only with their own bravery and Lorraine's clairvoyant abilities. 

There is a great deal here to admire, especially when it comes to crafting the requisite atmosphere. The Hodgson property is a dull and slightly ramshackle semi-d that exudes genuine menace precisely because it looks so unremarkable. Within its dreary walls, Frances O'Connor's Peggy and her brood, including possibly possessed daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), are driven mad by shadows and murk. 

Their tormentor takes the form of the home's former occupant, Bill Wilkins, whose lonely death has stoked the malevolence of his spirit. That spirit manifests itself in a number of ways and though few are especially original, dark corners, heavy footsteps and a sense of foreboding remain trusted tools in the horror genre. There are surprises, too. On more than one occasion, a child's tent made from blankets is transformed into something hideous, its black, cramped interior a dwelling for the film's simmering wickedness. 

Later, as the Warrens conduct their own examination, Wan produces The Conjuring 2's standout scene: Janet, captured in blurred focus and sitting on cinema's creepiest rocking chair, appears to morph into Wilkins while Ed trades barbs over his shoulder with the bitter old codger. It is a bravura sequence, completed in a single take, perfectly lit and underplayed by both Wilson and the increasingly haggard Wolfe, whose dabbling with a ouija board may or may not have summoned evil.

In the lead roles, Wilson and Farmiga continue their sterling performances from last time round. The Warrens were real and, apparently, honest professionals, a fact that both actors aim to emphasise by plumping for stoicism over posturing. Wilson is invariably superb — calm, heroic, serious — yet Farmiga stands out. Lorraine is no crank. She is a flinty individual capable of staving off the demons she regularly encounters, as well as a loving wife and mother. Her presence, along with Ed's uncomplicated masculinity, returns a tangible sliver of joy to beneath the Hodgson roof.

These are not the only layered portrayals. O'Connor excels as a woman, driven to despair by penury, who is unequipped to counter whatever it is that plagues her family. Simon McBurney, meanwhile, peeks out from beneath thick brows and bushy whiskers to inhabit paranormal true believer Maurice Grosse, a potentially comic character who ultimately feels as real the rest.

If there are missteps then they present themselves during a terribly overblown finale. As with the previous instalment, Wan chooses to eschew the chill running through the meridians of his own work. Instead, proceedings screech towards the finish line. The action ticks upwards as a rain, lightening and grotesqueries pour in against a narrative backdrop that never really makes sense. The director has terror in mind but delivers only bombast. When something quieter is required, the threat of silence is undermined by noise. 

Regardless of that din, there exists an emotional power to save the whole thing from itself, an element shaped around the genuinely affecting relationship between Ed and Lorraine. Its sincerity colours the larger canvas, filling the gaps between the myriad frights. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Nice Guys

Rating: 3/5

The pastel shades and neon nightscapes of 1970s Los Angeles receive the Shane Black treatment in The Nice Guys, a meandering buddy comedy that plays fast and loose with message and form, but succeeds, ultimately, on star power, as well as the confidence of its cheeky writing. 

This is Black's third film at the helm and while Iron Man 3 was largely an exercise in frustration, 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang satisfied as a debut effort, one driven on by Black's ability to mine gold from unlikely sources (Val Kilmer as a gay private detective possessing a fondness for the c-word, anybody?). 

After his Marvel sojourn, then, the writer-director returns to Kiss Kiss's neo-noir framing. Rolling out a tale as unpredictable as it is knowing, Black's hardboiled dialogue, crafted in concert with Anthony Bagarozzi, spills out from between the cracks of a sunny, often very silly period actioner.

It is entirely possible that absent the over-the-title A-listers, The Nice Guys could have been swallowed up by its own casual smugness. Instead, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are entirely engaging leading men, capable of delivering their lines with a sense of wit and clearly so at ease in each other's company that one feels genuine regret that this connection has had to wait until now.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, an enforcer-for-hire whose core services involve punching people in the face and then breaking their arms. When one of Healy's clients, Amelia (Margaret Qualley — seen most recently in HBO's beautiful, bizarre The Leftovers), goes missing, Healy falls in with licensed gumshoe Holland March (Gosling), himself pursuing a case that may or may not involve the other man's employer.

Gosling excels in his role, breathing easier without the yoke of intensity he often assumes to break away from that meme-friendly, matinee idol persona. Shifty, amoral and teetering on the brink of alcoholism, March is a pretty shitty investigator — though an endearingly useless, if devoted, single father to Holly (Angourie Rice), his razor-sharp pre-teen daughter — who must enlist the help of the bulky Healy to track down their mysterious quarry 

The result is an enjoyable mish-mash of genres, each jostling for position without ever properly winning out. Fans of Black's work will recognise his proclivity for splicing action and sarcasm, two elements he throws out here to good effect. Crowe and Gosling riff off each character's failings (Healy is a thug, March a borderline degenerate) with glee, a seemingly unending crusade to discern the plot coming a distant second to exploring the limits of their chemistry. 

Indeed, the central players do much to pick up the slack of a story that threatens to spiral away from them more than once. What might have been a tight little mystery instead throws much at the screen; some of it sticks, other bits do not. The staples of the milieu are all present and correct: corruption, vice, drugs, booze, gut-churning fashions. 

Throw in a disco soundtrack and Black appears determined to address, with equal concentration, every single idea his mind chugged out in bringing this vision to life. If it seems muddled, that's because it is. Events will, of course, eventually become clear, yet such is the density of their presentation, keeping track is no small task. 

Mercifully, however, the leading men possess enough charm to drag us along for the ride, wherever the road winds. 

There exist some nice touches to punctuate the violence and hard-bitten tropes. America's post-Nixon decline is a spectre even in California's glitzy locales (a masked, Point Break-inspired Tricky Dicky figure even makes a cameo) and the belief in the immortality of the hulking auto industry — one strand of the broader conspiracy at play — sounds woefully naive as more and more of Detroit's outer reaches are now reclaimed by Mother Earth.

Kim Basinger, too, shows herself later on, firing up old memories with Crowe as if back in the LA Confidential surroundings that have so clearly coloured Black's approach. Just don't take any of it seriously.