The Conjuring (2013)

conjuring_4Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins

Directed by James Wan

Expectations: High. I’ve heard a lot of hot fire about this one.

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Watching The Conjuring made me think about the horror genre, but that isn’t really a good thing. The film highlights aspects of the modern horror film that I feel are exactly what drove the genre into the ground, so instead of being involved and drawn into the film at hand, I was sitting there trying to figure out why I wasn’t doing just that. I enjoyed the film — it’s a fun piece of dumb fluff — but in terms of horror it’s a paltry example of the genre and it makes me sad that this (along with the remake of Evil Dead) are being championed as the 2013 high points of the genre.

The Conjuring is supposedly based on a true story from the case files of a very famous pair of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Amityville Horror was also inspired by their work, but the difference here is that The Conjuring makes the Warrens characters in the film. They bring with them a small team of ghost hunters with audio equipment and fancy cameras to capture the apparitions haunting the house. I assume that a basic haunted house story would have been seen as too easy and derivative, so the filmmakers added this layer on top to distinguish the film from the pack.

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White House Down (2013)

whitehousedown_1Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods, Nicolas Wright, Lance Reddick, Jimmi Simpson, Kevin Rankin, Michael Murphy, Rachelle Lefevre

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Expectations: Pretty low, but I like the leads enough to watch them in a dumb action movie.

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To call White House Down a variation on Die Hard is an understatement. White House Down IS Die Hard in the White House, but while shameless rip-offs and recycling of storylines is usually a bad thing, White House Down is so much fun that I hardly cared that I had seen this same setup before. Besides… Die Hard is awesome. There are definitely times when the nods to Die Hard are too on-the-nose (such as using Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony instead of the Ninth, with no other context but as a Die Hard reference), but even these moments made me smile instead of groan. And that’s the key thing in a dumb action movie like this: the tone is light enough and the action is furious enough for all those little annoyances to simply roll off your back. White House Down is definitely a whole lot of dumb, but that never stopped ’80s action movies, and it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying one of the best modern “old school” action movies I’ve seen in a while.

As you might expect from the title and the poster, White House Down is about a terrorist capture of the White House and one man slinking around and messing up the bad guy’s plans. Doesn’t get much more simple than that. Unfortunately, because this is 2013 it takes a while to actually get to the plot that matters. Director Roland Emmerich spends nearly 40 minutes setting up the characters and the inevitable takeover of the President’s home. Modern films just can’t seem to get down to business so I expected this, but what I didn’t expect was that once the pin is pulled, this grenade of a movie explodes into pretty much non-stop action and thrills. It’s intense, ridiculous and incredibly enjoyable.

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Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)

ozgreatandpowerfulStarring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart, Abigail Spencer

Directed by Sam Raimi

Expectations: None. I would never willingly choose to watch this, even if Sam Raimi made it.

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A Sam Raimi fan would hope that if he actually wanted to remake Army of Darkness, he’d at least do so interestingly. It’s a bit of a stretch to call Oz: The Great and Powerful an Army of Darkness remake, but there are way too many parallels between the stories to ignore. I have to wonder if these elements existed in the script prior to Raimi getting the job, or if they tailored the film to his perceived strengths; I imagine some executive yelling at a cowering assistant, “Get me Raimi! He knows fish-out-of-water stories!” Raimi’s strengths, if you were going by this movie, are first-person shots of stuff flying directly into the camera, coaxing horrible performances out of his actors, an ability to craft fun “getting stuff ready for the battle” montages, and short snap zooms (as opposed to the more prevalent long snap zoom that you might see in a Shaw Brothers movie, or more recently Django Unchained). That’s about all the Raimi directorial stamp there is on this bombastic, overstuffed mainstream offering. And yeah, I realize that this is for kids, but that doesn’t excuse it from being horrible.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is not based on any previous work, instead drawing elements and inspiration from the books of L. Frank Baum to create something of a prequel that never existed to The Wizard of Oz. We follow Oscar as he rides a tornado into Oz, finding himself smack dab in the midst of the fantastic world of Oz. Aspects of this story sort of fly in the face of what happened in the original film too, so purists will want to turn their brains off completely (or better yet, watch something else). Also, Disney doesn’t own the rights to the iconic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, so they are legally forbidden from directly referencing the events of that movie or using any similar designs. This is arguably a moot point, as the designs they ended up with for the Emerald City looked close enough for me to believe that they were the same city. The rest of Oz… not so much, but when you’re making an over-the-top fantasy film in 2013, that is to be expected.

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