THE CONJURING (2013, James Wan)
It’s been said that horror is the genre that most takes advantage of cinema’s unique properties as an art form. Because the composition of a film frame can dictate what you do and don’t see, because editing can stretch or contract time, and because soundtracks can heighten or diminish relevant audio, our senses are constantly manipulated by film — and as a result, we can easily be scared shitless.
The best horror films are those that use cinema’s bag of tricks to earn its scares (as opposed to, say, gore for gore’s sake or button-pushing torture for no purpose other than sadistic misanthropy — though some great horror films like THE DESCENT can be expertly crafted and still punishingly violent and sadistic), and thankfully THE CONJURING fits in that category. It isn’t a great story — it isn’t even an original story (despite its roots in a real-life incident) — but it’s goddam scary. Wan knows how to tease information and pace his terror — this isn’t a full-on assault (like THE DESCENT is, though again that film’s assault doesn’t hurt it much) nor is it a molasses-slow buildup like the disappointing features from Ti West; it’s a well-calibrated series of setpieces that don’t need to fall back on the shock-jolts, instead relying on creeping chills that slowly worm their way into your bones. (The hide-and-clap game in particular leads up to the single most terrifying shot in the picture).
I can do without all the religious hooey that seemingly must accompany good ol’ haunted house and possession movies. Like, why do we need the lame Catholic imagery, the goofy EXORCIST homages, and contrived backstories? Isn’t it scarier when the source of the possession is unknown? When shit is just evil for no reason? I’ll take more of the freaky ceramic doll, and less of the crosses and holy water. But whatever — this movie has a job to do and it is singularly focused on that task: scare the hell of of you, and by that metric, it’s a success.
For no particular reason, I thought I’d post (once again, for those of you sick of me mentioning this on Twitter over the past several years) Dan Black’s music video for “Symphonies,” possibly the most cinephilic video ever — spot all the title design references and win a prize. For those of you who don’t like the song, just turn the sound off and revel in movie-loving tributes…
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013, John Moore): 1/10
Bruce Willis is a veteran Hollywood movie star with nearly 100 credits to his name at the age of 58. He has been in the following films: LOOK WHO’S TALKING TOO, NORTH, THE STORY OF US, and THE WHOLE TEN YARDS. These are terrible films. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD is the worst film Bruce Willis has ever made.
It is obnoxious. It is insipid. It is boring. It is jingoistic. It is offensive. It is mean-spirited. It is humorless. It is incompetent. It is ugly. It is tone-deaf. It is derivative. And worst of all, it is a desecration to the original DIE HARD.
I know it’s unfair to compare this movie to the first in the series, because they aren’t even in the same universe. But it’s impossible to ignore just how far the franchise has fallen since its peerless debut 25 years ago. John McTiernan’s explosive tentpole was a model of narrative economy, graceful execution, and charming wit. Its lead character, John McClane, was a new kind of action hero — he was lonely, tired, scared, and vulnerable. Racing around a skyscraper in his bare feet, he wept and grunted his way to victory over terrorist robbers holding dozens of innocent people hostage. The guy named “John McClane” in this film, also played by Bruce Willis, can’t be the same character. He’s incapable of fear or emotion; he has nothing clever to say beyond giving people annoying nicknames. He walks up to innocent civilians and knocks them out in one punch because they don’t speak English… and he does this while in Moscow, Russia. You can argue he was an asshole in the first film, but you rooted for him. He’s a huge asshole in this film, and you have no sympathy whatsoever for him. I was hoping in every action sequence he would just be killed so I could find someone else to care about.
Lumbering from one incomprehensible setpiece to the next, Moore’s repulsively stupid film provides way too many things to sneer at — the talking killer cliche, the heroes impervious to injury or pain, the caricatures of Russian bad guys… which are made even more godawful when you do remember just how smart DIE HARD was: in how it made policemen obstacles instead of invisible; when it made its European terrorists individuals with identities and motivations rather than carrot-munching dry erase boards. But even if DIE HARD didn’t exist, this pitiful disaster would still set new standards for lazy, cynical, soul-sucking Hollywood entertainment. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD is what people mean when they say the cinema is dead. I loathe everything about it, and I’m starting to loathe myself for watching the whole thing.