The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It


Ed and Lorraine Warren hold each other against the darkness.

(2021) Horror (New Line) Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani, Ingrid Bisu, Andrea Andrade, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Sterling Jerins, Paul Wilson, Charlene Amoia, Nick Massouh, Stella Doyle. Directed by Michael Chaves

 
The third Conjuring film (and the eighth in the franchise overall) is a bit of a seismic shift from the previous films. James Wan, who directed the first two Conjuring films, knows how to develop a good creepy atmosphere as well as a decent scare. He is sorely missed here.

The movie opens with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) presiding over the exorcism of 11-year-old David Glatzel (Hilliard), attended by David’s parents (Paul Wilson, Amoia), his sister Debbie (Hook) and her boyfriend Arne Cheyenne Johnson (O’Connor). Things get dicey and during the ritual, Ed suffers a massive heart attack. While he’s on the edge of consciousness, he witnesses Arne imploring the demonic presence to leave the boy’s body and come inside him, which the spirit does.

Shortly thereafter, Arne gets into a dispute with his landlord (Blevins) and stabs him together. As Ed recovers and tells Lorraine what happened, the police arrest a stunned Arne who suspects he’s done something terrible. The Warrens convince Arne’s lawyer that Arne wasn’t responsible for his actions; literally, the devil made him do it. It’s one thing to claim that, and another to prove it. They consult a leading expert, Father Kastner (Noble) who leads them down an unexpected path where a malevolent occultist (Bondurant) awaits.

The first half of the movie is largely focused on Arne, Debbie and David, turning to the Warrens once the grisly crime is committed. The film’s strength is in the performances of Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who effectively capture the deep affection, mutual respect and abiding love – not to mention Catholic spiritualism – of the couple. There are those who believe the Warrens were con artists; I won’t make a judgment one way or the other, but the two actors portray the Warrens as we would like them to have been (they’ve both since passed on).

Like the other films in the series, the story is only loosely based on what actually happened. In real life, the presiding judge immediately rejected the plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession, stating (quite correctly) that it wasn’t provable. Johnson and his lawyer instead offered a self-defense plea and eventually ended up convicted of manslaughter and served five years of a ten to twenty year sentence before being paroled. Both Arne and his wife Debbie, who are still married today, confirm the Warrens’ version, although other members of the family have disputed this, most notably Carl Jr., David’s brother, who doesn’t appear in the film, who sued the author of the book The Devil in Connecticut for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. The author, Gerald Brittle, who received much input from the Warrens and whose book is listed as the basis for the film. Regardless of who you believe, you do know that things get embellished in these movies to make them more cinematic, right?

Chaves continues to develop the relationship between Ed and Lorraine but he isn’t as adept as Wan at creating tension and delivering on genuine scares. He relies a great deal on jump scares and at the end of the day, those are the cheapest of all, the horror equivalent of tripping on a banana peel. Plus, the movie just feels unfocused, as if the director’s mind was on his grocery shopping list more than on the film. Also, the big bad – the Occultist – isn’t fleshed out very much. She’s just EE-VILLE and the somewhat monotonous delivery of Bondurant doesn’t help matters. This is the weakest film of the trilogy by far to date; hopefully they can convince Wan to return and direct the next one – if indeed there is a next one.

REASONS TO SEE: Farmiga and Wilson continue to make an effective pair.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as focused as previous entries in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, scenes of terror and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chaves previously directed The Curse of La Llorona which is peripherally related to the Conjuring universe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until July 4)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: God Told Me To
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Super Frenchie

The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

Shock and Awe


You can tell they’re journalists by their rumpled clothes.

(2017) True Life Drama (VerticalWoody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff, Luke Tennie, Terence Rosemore, Margo Moorer, Michael Harding, Kate Butler, Luke White, Gabe White, Bowen Hoover, Caroline Fourmy, Teri Wyble, Al Sapienza, Steve Coulter, Gretchen Koerner. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

We live in a world where the press is often vilified for having an anti-American agenda – by the President. We live in a world where good journalism is often – if you’ll excuse the expression – trumped by potential profit. We also live in a world where we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly 20 years, the longest period we have ever been in a sustained conflict.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, though. America had just endured the horror of 9/11 and the people were eager to make someone pay. Afghanistan was a good candidate since they had given bin-Laden and Al Qaeda shelter, but then the rumors that George Bush, Dick Cheyney and Donald Rumsfeld were planning on invading Iraq as well took a lot of people by surprise. “Oh, but Weapons of Mass Destruction,” said the White House and everyone believed it, even though there was little or no evidence that they existed.

Not everyone believed; reporters for the Washington bureau of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain (for whom I once toiled although by 2001 I had been gone for five years) Warren Strobel (Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) were mystified at the media’s simple acceptance of the government’s claims without even basic fact checking, and began to dive deeper into those claims. What they found was disturbing to say the least, but nobody wanted to hear it; many of the papers in the Knight-Ridder chain refused to print the articles the men wrote, preferring to accept New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her pro-government assertions, for which she and the Times would later apologize – and which effectively ended Miller’s career as a respected journalist.

Clearly the film takes its cues from All the President’s Men, certainly the high end of crusading journalist movies. Reiner, who has made his share of politically charged movies (A Few Good Men and LBJ among them) doesn’t really instill the film with a lot of passion; perhaps it’s that he had to pull double duty as an actor when Alec Baldwin pulled out of the film literally a day before shooting started (it was a scheduling thing) but the movie is curiously low-energy.

Perhaps part of the film’s problem is that despite an excellent cast and a story that deserves to be told, it didn’t end well. The war, as we all know, happened and continues to happen to this day; thousands of American lives lost, literally more than a million Iraqi citizens dead, trillions of dollars spent and, well, here we still are. I suppose Strobel and Landay have the satisfaction of having been right but they weren’t able to convince anybody as we got our first taste of politics as entertainment. The media’s failure here only added to the distrust of the Fourth Estate which of course Trump and his cronies are exploiting and which have helped America into the mess it’s in now. Yes, I’m recommending the film – it’s a cautionary tale worth listening to, and it’s well-acted for the most part – but it’s a downer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO SEE: The cast is extraordinary. Has a documentary-like feel, in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the journalistic aphorisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Jones and Harrelson have appeared in the same film together, most notably in Natural Born Killers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spotlight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hamlet in the Golden Vale

Annabelle Comes Home


Chucky has got NOTHING on Annabelle!

(2019) Horror (New LineMcKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino, Samara Lee, Kenzie Caplan, Sade Katarina, Michael Patrick McGill, Brittany Hoza, Sheila McKellan, Eddie J. Fernandez, Steve Coulter, Luca Luhan, Gary-7, Paul Dean, Alison White, Oliver Dauberman, Lou Lou Safran, Anthony Wernyss, Natalia Safran. Directed by Gary Dauberman

Not every doll is a toy. Some dolls are heirlooms; others are meant for adult collectors. Then, there are a very few who are cursed or possessed by murderous spirits. There is one, however, who acts as a magnet for malevolent spirit.

Demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) have a roomful of cursed and possessed items they keep in a locked room. Of these, the most dangerous is Annabelle, a doll that serves as the aforementioned magnet. When she is not locked in a glass case that has been blessed by a priest, she can cause all kinds of mischief

When Ed and Lorraine have to leave on a job, they leave their young daughter Judy (Grace) under the care of sweet babysitter Mary Ellen (Iseman) whose friend Daniela (Sarife) is a bit less well-behaved. She manages to get herself into that forbidden room and in doing so unleashes hell. Suddenly the three girls are beset by all manner of malevolent entities. Surviving the night may well be impossible.

The seventh entry in the Conjuring shared movie universe is one of the strongest to date. Novice director Dauberman resists the temptation to rely on jump scares (although there are a few) and instead comes by his frights honestly. While at times, the movie does seem like a vehicle to establish future spin-offs for the franchise (I’m betting on a Ferryman and a Haunted bride film at the very least), the movie is powered largely by some strong performances by Grace, Iseman and Sarife – all of whom are given character depth and pluck. Dauberman also really sets the film in the 70s nicely; the fashions might make you cringe a little bit. Still, this is all very good fun and the kind of roller coaster ride I love in a horror movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very effective scares. The three female leads all do solid jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels at times like they’re just creating future spin-offs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Lorraine Warren passed away two months before the film was released. The closing credits include a dedication to her.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nun
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parasite