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The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.

As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.

As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.

The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.

If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.

The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?

As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

Three movies in, plus four spinoff films and more on the way, and The Conjuring franchise is losing some of its luster. The original director, James Wan, is still involved in an advisory capacity but his absence is felt in the director’s chair, not that The Devil Made Me Do It is poorly directed by Michael Chaves (Curse of La Llorona), but it’s starting to feel stale. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) are a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators traveling the country and solving 1970s/80s mysteries. This third entry feels the most like an expanded episode from a TV series, like X-Files, and maybe that’s because of its inherently procedural nature. The Warrens are defending a young man accused of murder but who says, as the subtitle describes, that he is not guilty by reason of demonic possession. From there, the Warrens are investigating to prove the demon exists and then trace its demonic history. The scares are low although the intensity feels cranked just as high; there are lots of scenes of gale force winds, shattered windows, characters yelling, and loud music. I miss the perfectly executed Old School horror sequences that were the hallmark of the earlier movies. It set up its rules, wound up the scene, and you just squirmed in anticipation. This franchise has never been revolutionary but more an expertly polished and honed tension machine. However, when the calibrations are off, then the franchise has even less going for it. There are some interesting ideas and elements, like Lorraine (Farmiga) being able to see from the eyes of the demonic killer, but the franchise feels more repetitive and stalled, with multiple exorcisms and Ed (Wilson)’s health being a motivating factor for his wife to prevent, again. The supporting characters are bland or broad and the mystery itself isn’t that interesting, nor is the ultimate villain. In the realm of Conjuring as weekly TV show formula, this feels like an acceptable middle episode with the expectations that they can improve the next week. The “based on true cases” selling point is also starting to grate in light of the reality that a man blamed his own actions on the devil and these controversial people sought to exonerate a murderer. The real-life version is morally abhorrent. The junky horror version can work as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If the other Conjuring movies were gourmet entries, then this is more the fast food version. It may still satisfy fans but it’s definitely not as well made and with questionable ingredients.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the sequel to 2014’s American re-launch, and the biggest complaint I had with that other film was how frustratingly coy it was with showing Godzilla. I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and King of the Monsters at least understands this need and supplies many of the most famous kaiju in the franchise, like Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed King Ghidorah. The human drama is just as boring with characters I have a hard time caring about. Vera Farmiga plays a scientist who lost a child during the 2014 monster brawl in San Francisco. She develops a sonar device to communicate and domesticate the giant monsters (now totaling 17 plus). She and her teen daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco terrorists that want to… destroy the world and leave it back to the ancient monsters? It’s a bit jumbled. I felt more for a monster than I did any living person. The plot does just enough to fill in time between the monster battles, which can be fun but are also lacking a few key items. Firstly, the sense of scale is lost. That’s one thing the 2014 film had in spades, the human-sized perspective of how enormous these beasts are. Also the fight scenes are shot in pretty dark environments that can make things harder to watch. There is a simple pleasure watching two giant monsters duke it out on screen, and King of the Monsters has enough of these to satisfy. It’s still a flawed monster mash but at least it sheathes the itch it was designed for, and if you’re a Godzilla fan and feeling generous, that might be enough to justify a matinee with a few of your favorite fifty-story pals.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Front Runner (2018)

In 1987, former Colorado senator and governor Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the leading Democrat in primary polling and a sure bet to take on George H.W. Bush for the White House. In three weeks time, his campaign was in tatters and he folded. It all stems from a supposed affair he was conducting with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). They deny anything but Gary acts like he has something to hide, evading the media’s questions about his marriage and his past history with infidelity. Enough time has passed in the political landscape to take a deeper dive into Gary Hart’s disintegration in the spotlight, and the moment serves a tipping point for changing media coverage. Journalists talk about the “old days” where candidate infidelity and ailments were just ignored as a gentleman’s agreement of sorts between the gatekeepers, but should they have? While a candidate’s martial relations are significantly less important than policy and governance, they do reflect character and what he or she (but, let’s face it, mostly he) acts with authority. Strangely, The Front Runner wants to paint the hungry journalists digging into Hart’s past as the real enemy, going above and beyond the bounds of ethics for crass sensationalism. This is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air), a shrewd storyteller with a knack for human drama, which makes the “both sides are bad” equivocation all the more curious. Jackman is strong and has several scenes of righteous speeches talking about how he didn’t sign away his privacy, except when you run for president, you kind of do, and the American public deserve to know if their leaders abuse power. The movie favors long takes with a wide supporting cast of players that speak like they stepped out of an Aaron Sorkin workshop (an exchange celebrating the “integrity” of news anchors wearing bad suits feels ripped right from Sorkin’s unguarded typewriter). The film is nicely sympathetic to the “other woman” in this scenario and treats her like a human being with dimension. The PR recovery and shady deeds of Hart’s team reminded me of the Chappaquiddick, which placed an unfavorable scrutiny on Ted Kennedy and his team of political spin masters after his deadly car accident. It all makes for an entertaining movie with solid performances and interesting character shading, but its perspective is too wobbly, trying to lay the blame on everyone it can find.

Nate’s Grade: B

Captive State (2019)

The fraught world of Captive State is interesting, a political landscape ten years into an alien occupation. We follow a small band of human resistance fighters working to get past a security stopgap to strike back at the alien overlords who resemble human-sized pine trees. John Goodman plays a police security chief trying to unravel the insurgent conspiracy while working with the collaborative government. It has a slight cat-and-mouse feel of a good conspiracy thriller and there are asides that broaden the world, giving an interesting peak at the realities of this strange new world. The problem is that it feels like a whole mini-series stripped into a two-hour movie. The characters feel less like people and more like impressions of people, and the story is plowing through so many incidents that there isn’t much time to flesh them out except for the occasional trope. As a result, the movie feels like it has a lot of things happening but my interest level flagged because I felt little for the characters. The limitations of the budget are felt here and there as far as the sense of scale. Director/co-writer Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) takes a docu-drama approach and favors nighttime chases and sneaking, which also conceals special effects restrictions. The visual grittiness adds a visceral level of realism but can lend itself to additional logic questions. I kept waiting for the world to feel more lived-in and offer important slivers to add layers of context to this conspiracy. Captive State is frustrating with how much it leaves unspoken and unclear. It’s ten years in to this occupation and what exactly have the aliens offered the world? What has changed? Why are these freedom fighters fighting back? What are the goals of the aliens? I can handle ambiguity and nuance but with too much the world building can feel unsatisfying and incomplete. It comes together well but by the climactic end I felt the universe it established was more intriguing with potential than the story it delivered.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

CJR2_1sht_Main_Vert_2764x4096_INTL_masterHorror is one genre where sequels rarely if ever satisfy. Usually the repetition is mind numbing and what was once scary has been eradicated. The true signs of great horror is the dread of what’s coming next, and to this end James Wan has shown tremendous skill at playing an audience and their fears. The Conjuring 2 isn’t quite the thrilling success that its predecessor was but it still upholds the best parts of what made the first movie frightening. We follow the Warrens once more, the husband and wife paranormal investigators, and this time to England where a malevolent spirit is haunting a family. One of the few miscues is delaying the meeting of the Warrens with the beleaguered family to almost an hour, pushing the running time to a needlessly overblown 133 minutes. The movie seems to be stretching out the ghost set pieces. Fortunately, Wan knows exactly how to build tension and let it simmer. The demon nun imagery is effectively unsettling, and there’s a brilliant sequence where Mrs. Warren (Vera Farmiga) has to slowly pull a light cord, all while the portrait of the demon nun hangs visibly in the dark. It’s a small scene that explains in full the clever construction of the whole. It sets up the parameters, develops them, and then lets the audience dread what it knows is coming. These are not cheap scares or lame jump scares but genuinely earned terror within a carefully constructed atmosphere. It might not be as good as the first one but The Conjuring 2 is still plenty good, which by default makes it possibly one of the greatest horror sequels of all time. Let’s hope the demon nun spinoff goes better than Anabelle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-poster1Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.

100355_galDirector James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.

It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.

Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.

THE CONJURINGI need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.

While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.

If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Source Code (2011)

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train. His mind has been transplanted into the body of Sean Fentress, a doomed train passenger. Fentress, along with 200 others, were killed in an explosion on a commuter train heading in to Chicago. But this has all happened in the past. Colter has been quantum leaped into a top secret government program known as the source code. It uses people’s brain waves to simulate a recorded reality. The last thing Colter can remember is a firefight in Afghanistan, and now he’s aboard a train looking for a mad bomber. Whatever info he can retrieve will help the officials (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) prevent a second terrorist bombing scheduled that day. Colter only has eight minutes to interact with the train passengers and deduce who the bomber is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and the reality resets itself again. Things get even more complicated when he falls for Fentress’ fetching female friend Christina (Michelle Mongahan). Can he save her? Can he save anyone? Can he get out of the source code?

Source Code manages to be a twisty, trippy little film that doesn’t so much knock you out but definitely packs a bit of a punch. Its simplicity is its very best asset. There’s a bomb on a train (ignore the questionable movie sci-fi physics). Colter has exactly eight minutes to learn what he can before he and everybody else blows up. Then the fun starts anew. The movie is less a time-travel flick than an alternate reality sort of experiment. Personally, I love movies that present a timeline and then slowly thumb away at the edges, stretching the narrative space, showing the audience the various intricacies of this tiny world. Whether it’s Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day, or the propulsive fun of Run Lola Run, I enjoy a story that expands outward into a greater foundational complexity. I enjoy the clockwork of a story that shows me how the different pieces work together. I enjoy that through the variations I can experience a richer world, seeing what happens to a passenger as they leave the train, seeing how a character’s actions can impact another, seeing how altering that character’s action alters other forces in the story. That kind of narrative trickery, perfected in Groundhog Day, makes the story feel like a living creature because you witness the interconnected relationships of everything and everyone. It also makes it pretty fun to watch.

Director Duncan Jones makes slick use of tight spaces like he showcased in 2009’s celestial sci-fi thriller, Moon. The quick pacing and collective rhythm of the movie helps contribute to its entertainment factor. Source Code is playful enough in design and execution. It remains consistently clever with its plotting, but what’s really surprising is that Jones is able to find a personal human story inside all the thriller trappings. Colter is trying to make sense of his situation, but he’s also trying to reconcile the idea of life, death, fate, and getting to speak with his parents who assume he was killed in Afghanistan (he’s been with the source code project for over two months). There’s a human face to all this, and while the love story feels tacked on and underdeveloped, Colter’s emotional turmoil and existential struggles to reassert his identity and find some peace from his life ring true. Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia) is an ever capable lead who takes a near Hitchcockian leading man role and plays it straight to fine effect.

At the same time, Source Code tries to have it all with an ending that I don’t truly believe it pulls off. Spoilers will lurk, so skip the next two paragraphs those who wish to remain pure and chaste. The film does a fairly nimble job of setting up an appropriate, if mostly downbeat, ending. Colter doesn’t want to be a brain in a box; he doesn’t want the government using him as their newest tool for the rest of his unnatural days. He was pulled from the brink of death and he now just wants to die in peace. In the recorded reality of the source code, he’s allowed the chance that most of us will never have – he can find closure. Whereas he would have died on a desert battlefield, now Colter has an opportunity to speak to his father one last time, to say goodbye. The entire denouement of Source Code seems to be establishing a memorial for the people who were lost on that train, because once the source code is erased so too will they be. They’re electronic recreations but in the end it reminds you that they were real people, and now they get something of a proper sendoff, a fairly touching memorial to the people who will just be seen as numbers in a news report.

And then… just as Colter makes peace with passing over, he passes over into another reality. The train doesn’t blow up. The people are able to get off. He gets to walk hand-in-hand with his new sweetheart. Jones doesn’t make it clear what really happens, which can lead to some mounting confusion. Did they really alter the past? Did they create a parallel dimension? In one dimension is everyone on the train dead whereas in another everyone lives, short of Sean Fentress? And how crappy is that? Yes, Gyllenhaal is a charming and terrific looking guy, but does no one shed a tear for the fact that he stole another man’s body? Sean Fentress may not have had the courage to ask out his pretty friend, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to have his identity hijacked and his existence more or less erased from time and space. It’s a weird blemish that the filmmakers don’t truly want to address, and why would they? The ending lacks commentary of any sort strictly because the movie wants to have it all. It wants the sad, mournful ending, it wants the happy “Everything’s gonna be okay” ending. It almost let’s you choose. But Source Code doesn’t come across so much as a film that begs to be opened for different interpretations so much as a film that didn’t want to upset anyone by picking an ending.

Source Code is nicely paced, nicely plotted, and it produces just as many intriguing questions as it does substantial thrills. Jones finds interesting ways to make the same material different. The various characters, converging storylines, and science-fiction mumbo jumbo are all nicely woven into a satisfying bite-sized sci-fi thriller. It fumbles with the landing, in my view; it seems like a pandering appeal to please every faction of the audience, or at least to confuse them with the illusion that they have gotten what they wanted. This is an intellectual sci-fi potboiler in disguise as a thriller. Roll with it, play along, don’t think too hard about the moral implications of its murky ending, and enjoy the ride.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t get t the point of calling this the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.

Nate’s Grade: A

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