Tag Archives: James Wan

The Organization of Space in The Conjuring 2, Three and Green Room

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It’s a bit too long and I never again want to see a horror movie that climaxes with “demonologists” wielding crucifixes and reciting bible verses in Latin but I still enjoyed the hell out of The Conjuring 2, a sequel that is far better than it has any right to be. Not as terrifying as the first (there is nothing to match the creepiness of that film’s Annabelle prologue nor the instant-classic “clap scene”), it nonetheless strikes an appealing balance between the goofy and the scary. The best sequence is the one in which Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) croons Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a group of children while accompanying himself on finger-picked acoustic guitar. It may be the least essential scene on the level of story but it makes me indescribably happy because it’s so old-fashioned and so much like something out of a (non-musical) Hollywood movie of the 1940s or 1950s. As with similar moments involving Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the Sons of the Pioneers in John Ford’s Rio Grande, the narrative here stops completely cold so that someone can simply sing a song — in its entirety. It’s also the scene that best exemplifies the surprisingly warm-hearted tone of The Conjuring 2, an ostensible horror/thriller that, much more than its predecessor, makes the unusual decision to foreground the love story between its married protagonists. This, and the urban, working-class London setting — so different from the rural Rhode Island farmhouse of the first movie — ensure that director James Wan is able to produce something that feels aesthetically fresh even while he sticks closely to a familiar narrative playbook.

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The mostly respectful reviews of The Conjuring 2 have predictably focused on the literary virtues of story and character, with the odd stray remark praising the movie’s elaborate displays of “moving camera.” While the camera movement is indeed masterful, I’d argue that it’s Wan’s mise-en-scene (that slippery term denoting how a director stages events for the camera) that truly impresses. No matter how silly his scripts might be (and this is the first feature on which Wan has taken a co-writing credit), this motherfucker knows how to organize space: he always takes great care to visually lay out the interiors of his locations — usually through tracking shots and crane shots in which the camera prowls, cat-like, through hallways and up and down staircases — so that viewers completely understand where each room is in relation to every other room. Wan then uses the viewer’s knowledge of the architectural layout of the space to build anticipation and tighten the narrative screws. A case in point is a scene involving a tent made out of blankets that is ominously positioned at the end of a long hallway. Wan puts the camera in a child’s bedroom and keeps the tent in frame but out-of-focus through an open door in the background, generating an incredible amount of suspense over what purpose the tent may hold within the narrative. Even better, he composes this shot, Polanski-like, so that only half of the tent can be seen in the frame. At the screening I attended, viewers were visibly trying to crane their necks around the frame of the bedroom door onscreen. Wan, an Australian director of Malaysian-Chinese descent, is arguably the only director making Hollywood genre movies today who possesses this level of visual mastery and it’s high time he was recognized for the being the auteur that he is.

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The old-fashioned virtues of mise-en-scene can, of course, be readily found in contemporary genre films made outside of the U.S. — notably in Asian genre fare such as Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing from South Korea and Johnnie To’s Three from Hong Kong. The latter film, a thriller set entirely in a hospital, recently had an under-publicized and too-brief run in a few major U.S. cities (including in Chicago at the AMC River East) and viewers who caught it on the big screen should consider themselves lucky — it reaffirms why To is the best at what he does. The plot centers on a crime boss, Shun (Wallace Chung), who has shot himself in the head during a police standoff before the movie’s narrative proper begins. In spite of the seriousness of his injury, Shun, handcuffed to a gurney, refuses surgery in the hospital’s Emergency Room in hopes that his minions will soon show up to rescue him. Again shades of Rio Bravo abound, not only in terms of plot (a criminal under police supervision waits to be sprung by accomplices while being holed up in a claustrophobic location) but also in terms of theme. Three is a virtual essay on how professional duty and moral responsibility intersect and sometimes come into conflict; the Cop (Louis Koo) watching over Shun and the Doctor (Zhao Wei) in whose care he’s been placed repeatedly clash heads in a location that is at once semi-public and semi-private, and over which neither has complete dominion. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, probably the most astute critic of To in the English language, memorably describes how the use of curtains to cordon off hospital beds “create proscenium arches for intrigue and misdirection.” No matter that Three falls apart in an over-the-top climactic shootout that involves dodgy CGI; To, like Wan, knows how to use location as character and the expressive theatricality of his sets is exhilarating to behold for most of the film’s running time.

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In spite of near-unanimous praise, Jeremy Saulnier’s indie thriller Green Room is a movie that spectacularly fails to capitalize on the cinematic possibilities inherent in its central location: a punk-rock club under siege. The conventional wisdom regarding Green Room is that it’s a throwback to “early John Carpenter” but this analogy only makes sense when one considers the film in terms of narrative and genre elements, not in terms of actual filmmaking technique (i.e., mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing). Carpenter’s breakthrough film Assault on Precinct 13 (itself an unofficial remake of, you guessed it, Rio Bravo) involved a Los Angeles police station besieged by gang members. But what often makes the Carpenter of Assault, and its follow-up Halloween, so great is the director’s masterful use of the widescreen frame. Carpenter’s 2.35:1 compositions cleverly use foreground and background elements to create tension and build suspense (think of Michael Meyers repeatedly popping up in the background of the frame in the early sections of Halloween). Saulnier, by contrast, treats his ‘Scope compositions as if he were shooting in the square Academy ratio — close-ups might as well be long shots and vice-versa. Worse, he’s incapable of, or unwilling to, coherently lay out the space of his central location like Wan or To. In shots that are often under-lit, murky and ugly, his musician heroes (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin!) attempt to battle their way past their neo-Nazi tormentors and out of the club towards freedom, but viewers are frequently unsure of where these characters are in relation to one other. This ensures that Saulnier is only capable of generating surprise — in the form of out-of-the-blue bursts of violence — as opposed to good old-fashioned suspense (to borrow a distinction that Alfred Hitchcock liked to make). Is it effective on a visceral level? Sure. But Cinema it ain’t.


Now Playing: Pacific Rim and The Conjuring

Pacific Rim
dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013, USA

Rating: 6.8

The Conjuring
dir. James Wan, 2013, USA

Rating: 7.9

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Now playing in theaters everywhere is Pacific Rim, the eighth feature film by Mexican-born, Hollywood-based genre specialist Guillermo del Toro. While I admire all of del Toro’s movies to a greater or lesser extent (with the exception of Mimic, which I’ve never actually seen, mainly because I know he never had complete creative control over it — not even in the inevitable “director’s cut” issued recently on Blu-ray), it unfortunately seems inarguable to me that Pacific Rim is his least interesting work to date. While Pacific Rim is pretty good for what it is, “what it is” in this case, a robots vs. monsters extravaganza in the Transformers mold, is, like the song says, my idea of nothing to do. Sure, there’s plenty to recommend it: purely as an exercise in “world building,” I can appreciate any fictional universe with a mythology as elaborate and detailed as this: it takes place in a near-future where giant sea-monsters known as “kaiju” wreak havoc on earth, and a multinational government coalition has consequently created giant robots known as “jaegers” in order to combat them. Intriguingly, each jaeger must be piloted by two humans who are telepathically linked to one other (in order to share the “neural load”), a conceit that leads to the film’s niftiest visuals: rapid-fire montages in which each jaeger sees the other’s life in flashback. Also in Pacific Rim‘s favor: the fight scenes are spatially/temporally coherent and, del Toro being the humanist that he is, the film is refreshingly absent of cynicism (neither of which can be said about Transformers or most other contemporary blockbusters).

Having said all that . . . Pacific Rim is still too long, too loud and too cliche-ridden. The wooden lead characters, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Riko Kinkuchi), are jaeger pilots who embark on a requisite unconvincing love story and prove as uninteresting as the romantic leads in an MGM Marx brothers’ film. It becomes obvious pretty soon where del Toro’s real interest lies: with the nerdy scientist “frienemies” played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, and a shady black market organ dealer played with relish by del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman. But these characters are, unfortunately, too small a part of the movie overall. Del Toro’s most personal touches (Day’s character is described as a “kaiju groupie” and even has the beasts tattooed on his forearms) feel like little splashes of color here and there on an otherwise large, impersonal canvas. By contrast, in the massively underrated Hellboy II, del Toro’s previous feature, those touches were the whole show: there is nothing in Pacific Rim to rival Hellboy II‘s exhilaratingly eccentric troll-market sequence. Or its most outrageous lines of dialogue (“I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor!”). There’s nothing quite as sweet or goofy as Hellboy II‘s unexpected use of a Barry Manilow song. Or as poignant and strangely beautiful as the scene depicting the death of a giant plant monster. Or lots of other things. Instead we have big, dumb, loud battle scenes (including an unnecessary final battle that follows what feels like the film’s logical climax) between jaegers and kaiju that take place at night and in the rain so that even the creature design, usually a highlight in del Toro, is disappointingly obscured by darkness and murk. We also have an inordinate number of close-ups of Kinkuchi, obviously calculated to appeal to the all-important Asian market, and Idris Elba as a jaeger commander who delivers a rousing sound-bite version of Henry V‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech.

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The somewhat sad truth is that if Guillermo del Toro had never been born, the movie Pacific Rim would have still been made, albeit co-written and directed by someone else. And it would have still been more or less the same film that I just saw. I would prefer it if del Toro, an imaginative visual stylist and a natural born filmmaker if there ever was one, would show me that which without him I would otherwise never have seen. When I saw del Toro introduce a screening of his 2001 Spanish ghost story The Devil’s Backbone at the Chicago International Film Festival few years back, he made the surprising confession that this little-seen film was, along with his much-lauded 2006 Spanish Civil War-set fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, his own personal favorite of his works. (It’s worth noting that he said this in front of Ron Perlman, who has starred in virtually all of del Toro’s films except for those two movies.) If del Toro is willing to acknowledge that his Hollywood work is almost necessarily compromised, one wonders why he’s determined to play the Hollywood game for such high stakes (the budget for Pacific Rim was allegedly $180,000,000): is it to rebound from the negative press surrounding his failure to realize several other projects, including The Hobbit? Is it to prove himself a commercially viable director in the hopes of getting his long-cherished adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain’s of Madness finally greenlit? Whatever the case, I’ve still got my fingers crossed for his next project, a horror film entitled Crimson Peak starring Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mia Wasikowska. Del Toro has described it as a deliberate attempt to do one of his “Spanish-language films in English.” Here’s hoping.

While one could certainly do much, much worse than choosing to see Pacific Rim from among this season’s popcorn movies, one could also do much better: my own pick for the Hollywood film of the summer is James Wan’s unexpectedly good and genuinely scary The Conjuring, now also playing in theaters everywhere. A haunted house scenario that improves upon Insidious, Wan’s formidable 2010 hit about “astral projection,” The Conjuring is yet another allegedly “true story” in the Exorcist/Amityville Horror mold that is nonetheless fully redeemed by the director’s richly atmospheric mise-en-scene. Wan and cinematographer John Leonetti use a constantly prowling camera to convey a palpable sense of creeping dread, and the Val Lewton-esque use of shadows and offscreen space is never less than masterful: gore is almost entirely absent and yet the audience with whom I saw it let out more than a few collective screams over the course of its two-hour running time. I personally felt scared, very scared, less than two minutes into the movie, during a short prologue involving an unbelievably creepy-looking doll that is surely one of the most unsettling props ever created for a horror film. And I continued to feel that way throughout (barring, of course, the cliched exorcism climax — can’t Hollywood find something other than Christian iconography to fight demonic possession with?). Adding to the credibility is a first-rate cast that includes Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the parents of the haunted family and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as their ghost-hunter doppelgangers, not to mention a level of period detail (the events take place in 1971) that approaches the Fincher-esque.

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