I was about halfway through my screening of The Conjuring when I noticed that I was having a most unusual reaction to director James Wan's haunted-house opus: For the life of me, I couldn't stop smiling.
That's not to say that I hadn't also been jumping out of, and shrinking into, my seat on more than a few occasions; Wan's mostly gore-free scare flick - which tells the purportedly true story of a Rhode Island family besieged by a malevolent spirit in 1971 - is perhaps the most legitimately startling release of its type since Wan's own Insidious from a couple years back. Yet that was also the exact reason for my incessant grinning. Modern fright films are so routinely disappointing that it's a shock, and a great one, when a genre entry actually appears to get everything just right, and from its early-'70s mise-en-scène to its disarmingly committed portrayals to its marvelously calibrated jolts and protracted creep-outs, there's hardly a minute in The Conjuring that's less than than wholly, thrillingly effective.
The scene that first made me aware of my ceaseless smiles was the one that's been so smartly exploited in the movie's trailers, in which Lili Taylor plays a seemingly benign game of hide-and-clap with one of her five daughters and, without her knowledge, an unseen, unwelcome houseguest. But Wan, directing with beautiful control and finesse, sustains his outing's funny/scary vibe through sequences as grand as the climactic exorcism and moments as subtle as the family pooch's terrified unwillingness to leave the front porch and enter the house, and his uniformly outstanding cast navigates a delicate balance between earned seriousness and knowing satire. (Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston are especially engaging, and Vera Farmiga, with her gift for lending emotional gravitas to every role she undertakes, is a figure of heartbreaking empathy here.) The floorboards creak, the walls groan, your heart races, and your horror-loving happiness just keeps escalating in The Conjuring, a stylish and ticklish "Boo!" movie in which the only proper response is "Yay!"
R.I.P.D. and RED 2
As a huge fan of her for more than 20 years now, I nearly plotzed when I realized that two of the movies I'd be seeing over the weekend would feature Mary-Louise Parker in significant roles. In retrospect, I would've been even more stoked if those movies weren't R.I.P.D. and RED 2, but c'est la vie.
Of the pair, I found director Robert Schwentke's R.I.P.D. the less enjoyable one, mostly because I liked the film better when it was called Men in Black. With its initials standing for "Rest in Peace Department," this supernatural action comedy finds Ryan Reynolds' deceased Boston cop and Jeff Bridges' deceased gunslinger recruited to bring yowling monsters to justice while the apocalypse looms, and it's like MIB without cleverness, sharp pacing, or decent effects. (Parker plays the Rip Torn to Reynolds' Will Smith and Bridges' Tommy Lee Jones.) But while Schwentke's effort looks shoddy and sounds tinny, and Reynolds appears bored and embarrassed, you can at least experience some mild pleasure via Bridges' skillfully mush-mouthed Rooster Cogburn parody and Parker's witheringly acerbic wit; R.I.P.D. doesn't deserve the performers, but once we're stuck with their movie, we certainly do.
As for RED 2, director Dean Parisot's sequel to 2010's action slapstick about "retired and extremely dangerous" assassins, it's not only more fun than R.I.P.D.; it's more fun than RED. Granted, considering the movie's incoherently staged mayhem and senseless narrative involving a potential doomsday device, it's still not very good, and star Bruce Willis looks as unengaged here as Ryan Reynolds does in R.I.P.D. Yet freed from delivering the original's relentless exposition, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and others lend the film considerable comic flair - we're even given a momentary, in-joke face-off between dueling Hannibal Lecters Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins - and the brilliantly deadpan Parker is a continual hoot as Willis' newly gun-toting amour, whom characters keep referring to as "the girl." Given that Parker herself is 48, that seems somewhat demeaning, but as RED 2 marks the performer's first leading role on-screen over a quarter-century film career, who am I to bitch?
This might not be incentive enough to catch Turbo if you weren't already predisposed to do so, but in Dreamworks Animation's tale of a snail (voiced by Ryan Reynolds ... yup, him again ... ) who acquires super-sonic velocity and eventually races the Indianapolis 500, Richard Jenkins voices a character who looks uncannily like Richard Jenkins. I mean, uncannily. The face, the physique, the air of nervous resignation ... it's all there. What's not there in director David Soren's family entertainment is any deviation from formula or narrative surprise; its storyline is the standard "believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything" pap that would carry more weight if our shell-backed hero didn't become a speed demon through such impossible circumstances. But the film is surely sprightly and colorful enough to delight young audiences not up for another viewing of Despicable Me 2 or Monsters University, and beyond Jenkins', there are alternately incongruous and perfectly fitting voice-actor/character match-ups to keep grown-up chaperones reasonably amused. Ken Jeong as a petite, wisecracking granny? Pretty great. Paul Giamatti as a kvetching land mollusk with anger issues? Freakin' priceless.