After the massively successful Saw franchise put James Wan on the map, his attempts to branch out, with the alliterative 2007 films Dead Silence and Death Sentence, weren't met with the same kind of success. Or even attention. After taking a break to executive produce more Saw films, which likely kept the bank account full, Wan returned to the director's chair with the 2010 smash, Insidious.
In what was to become familiar territory, Insidious told the story of a family of Renai and Josh Lambert, who move into a new house where things get immediately weird. Their youngest son, Dalton falls into a coma and it is soon discovered that his soul is being kept by an evil spirit in a land between the living and the dead called The Further. Josh journeys there to bring his son's soul back but winds up trapped, an evil spirit in possession of Josh's corporeal body.
And while Insidious did spend a great first two acts building palpable tension and atmosphere, its third act broke the spell with some ill-advised comic relief and a protagonist that looked more than a little like Darth Maul. Not a disaster, but a bit of a disappointment in that it didn't stick the landing.
With the recently amazing The Conjuring, Wan took the best elements of Insidious and followed through with a great flick loaded with genuine tension, dread and scares. Insidious: Chapter 2, coming only a few months later, is in the awkward position of not only having to be better than its predecessor but also better than Wan's most recent work, which still looms large in the public consciousness as well as being a stylistic high water mark in his filmography.
We pick up on the story of Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson, reprising their roles) soon after the events of the first film, but not before a flash back where we learn of young Josh's connection to the spirit world in 1986 when he, at his mother's behest, is visited by a medium named Carl (Steve Coulter) who senses a malevolent presence around Josh. It's basically a set up to re-introduce Elise, the psychic from the first film. It's a nice connection to make, and the scene pays off neatly later on, since we know Elise (Lin Shaye) is already dead at the hands of the possessed Josh 25 years later.
The investigation into Elise's death leads to Josh, but with no real evidence, there is only suspicion. Worse, Renai, already on edge, starts noticing murmurs of supernatural weirdness around their house again. When a ghostly woman knocks her ass out, she quickly comes to realize that their troubles with the afterlife aren't over.
When Josh's mom, Lorraine (Barbra Hershey), calls in the paranormal investigators from the first film, Specs and Tucker (writer Leigh Whannell and Angus Simpson), they enlist the help of the aging Carl who, with a set of lettered dice that allows him to talk with the dead, leads them all down a rabbit hole that reveals the murderous, twisted (some might say, insidious) nature of the evil spirits beleaguering the Lamberts -- and hopefully gives Dalton (Ty Simpkins) a way to bring his real father back from the void of The Further.
There are a couple of neat tie-ins to the first film, but Insidious: Chapter 2 is trying to expand on the world it created. And it turns out that the world of the dead is depressingly shallow. I'm not going to spoil any of the few twists Insidious 2 delivers, but there's an overwhelming sense of been-here-did-this that infects the proceedings. Wan -- with longtime writing partner Whannell -- provide a few creepy scenes (the pews of long dead murder victims in a pivotal moment were a nice touch) and they are still admirably judicious with the cheap jump-scares. But Wan is going through the motions (with most of the money shots already seen in the trailers). The guy has shot one too many dark basements, creaking doors opening by themselves and background grotesqueries hiding in the corner of the frame. And I've watched him do it too many times. When Insidious 2 somewhat devolves into found footage, I began to feel the lazy tendrils of Paranormal Inactivity-induced tedium.
Byrne and Wilson are fine, and he does some pretty effective character work here. Simpkins is also fine as Dalton, and if he keeps this up, he'll have no problem finding roles. Barbra Hershey is a goddamn joy. They keep things immediate even when the narrative doesn't.
The story isn't without a few scares, but overall, it falters in a way not helped by the tension-subverting comic relief provided by Specs and Tucker. Insidious: Chapter 2 has such a leaden tone, never finding an organic balance between its atmosphere and its narrative momentum, that the attempts at levity only magnify the film's flatness.
Wan is leaving the Insidious series to direct Fast and Furious films. More power to him. He needs the break. And so do we.
The Summer of 2013, In Review
The Summer of 2013 will be remembered more for its high profile flops (one of which appears in the following list) than it will be for the winners. But there were a few. Ten, to be exact. So despite The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D. existing and the fact that I haven't seen This Is The End or A Band Called Death, here are the 10 Best Films of the Summer of 2013.
That I've seen.
And not ranked in order. Sorry if that sounds awkward, but I hate lists.
Iron Man 3: The reuniting of Robert Downey, Jr. and writer/director Shane Black begets a Marvel film that almost tops the giddy heights of Joss Wheadon's amazing The Avengers. At the very least, IM3 is the perfect follow-up. And the marvelous creative chemistry between Downey and Black makes it the best film of the Iron Man franchise, as well as being the most fun I had in a theater all summer...
Pacific Rim: ...though this was a close second in the fun department. Pacific Rim crashed domestically, but that doesn't mean it sucked. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Legendary uber-geek director, Guillermo del Toro crafted a kaiju vs. giant robots smashfest that would have made me shit my pants with delight when I was 14-years old. Thankfully, I have better self-control now, but the giddy, world-building, monster movie joys of Pacific Rim remain the same.
The Conjuring: The review above notwithstanding, James Wan exhibited a masterful control of tone, tension, atmosphere, scares, performances and storytelling all wrapped into the super-creepy delight that is The Conjuring. Yes, it's another ghost story, and his style is familiar, but he wrung every last drop out of it here for a film that will leave the fainter-of-heart in a puddle of their own liquefied nerves.
Only God Forgives: Nicholas Winding Refn is into genre deconstruction, and Only God Forgives is no different. With last year's Drive, it was the crime thriller, while here it's something of a yakisoba western whose story of overlapping vengeance is steeped in pure thematic atmosphere and an acid-induced narrative that revolves around a small, unassuming-looking, karaoke-loving, unstoppable, killing machine Asian guy. Who's not Ryan Gosling.
Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen behind the camera and Cate Blanchett in front of it are in top form in the Woodman's best film since Midnight in Paris and perhaps Blanchett's best performance ever. Detailing the Bergman-esque mental breakdown of a formerly elite woman when she is forced to live with her working-class sister, Blue Jasmine is one of Allen's darkest and most thoughtful films in years.
Fruitvale Station: The tragic story of Oscar Grant -- an unarmed black kid who was killed by a San Francisco transit cop -- is brought to tangible, heartbreaking, and magical life with Fruitvale Station. Be it the effortless direction by Ryan Coogler (in his feature debut) or the utterly game-changing lead performance by Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station is unforgettable and clearly a contender for the best film of 2013.
Elysium: Neil Blomkamp's District 9 was an original, visceral, deeply satisfying sci-fi romp with plenty of social commentary in the mix. It was also easily enough reason to get excited about his follow up, Elysium. This tale of an upper one percent who leave a dilapidated Earth for a pristine space station, and the 99 percent who want in doesn't disappoint. Matt Damon is reliably likable and Sharlto Copley is a blast as the evil merc Kruger, though, honestly, if Star Trek Into Darkness had been worth a shit, it probably could have taken this slot.
The Act of Killing: I've never seen a film like The Act of Killing. You haven't either. The doc, detailing the exploits of a still-influential group of former assassins in Indonesia who reenact their murderous pasts is, quite simply and doubtlessly, without peer.
Blackfish: The levels of cruelty exhibited by man come in two varieties: the purposeful and the inadvertent. It's not as though people who take their kids to Seaworld to enjoy the wonders of nature are being purposefully cruel. They're just enabling an industry that banally inflicts cruelty on sentient, intelligent beasts -- and their employees. If you thought The Cove was devastating, then you will be genuinely damaged by Blackfish. Fuck Seaworld.
The Wolverine: A stealth Marvel movie in more ways than one, The Wolverine might be the most unique superhero tentpole of the summer. It certainly set itself apart with its noir-mystery/techno-thriller roots and director James Mangold's subdued, '70s-esque cinematic style, which was a genuine surprise. Not to mention, reminding its audience that the Wolverine is/was/always will be the coolest of the X-Men. Now if he could just get over Jean Grey.
Honorable Mentions: Frances Ha, Fast & Furious 6, Still Mine, Man of Steel, Much Ado About Nothing and The Spectacular Now.
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