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Non-Review Review: Aquaman

Aquaman is not a disaster on the scale of Justice League. It is perhaps closer to Green Lantern.

This comparison makes a certain amount of sense. Both Aquaman and Green Lantern are defined by the influence of writer Geoff Johns. Johns is an interesting figure, having broken into the entertainment world through film. He famously worked as a personal assistant to Richard Donner. However, Johns is best known for his work in comic books, particularly at DC when he enjoyed long character-defining runs on properties like Justice Society of America, The Flash and Green Lantern. A controversial figure, Johns is a strong writer with a great sense of a property’s core appeal.

Sink or swim time.

However, Johns’ skill with comic books does not translate to cinema. Green Lantern was largely influenced by Johns’ own work on the title, which remains a highlight of DC’s twenty-first century output. The feature film employed Johns’ characterisation of Hal Jordan, ported over a lot of his revamped mythology for the character, and even employed one of his own creations as the primary villain. However, a good comic book run did not translate to a good film. Green Lantern was more focused on being a faithful adaptation of the comic than a satisfying film in its own right.

Aquaman suffers from the same fundamental issue. The movie is packed to the gill with continuity references, particularly to Johns’ reworking and reimagining of the character, which has been repackaged as an omnibus collection to mark the release of the film. Aquaman features an incredibly dense mythology that is often delivered via awkward exposition dump, with characters bouncing between long tiring world-building dialogue scenes and epic computer-generated spectacle. Ironically, there is no room for any of this to breathe.

A Mera mistep-a.

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Non-Review Review: The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 is effectively a tentpole horror.

It is very much a horror film, with James Wan demonstrating all the skill and technique that he had honed over years working in the genre. There some wonderful slow pans and creepy camera movements that emphasise negative space, some very effective use of timing and mounting dread, and a palpable sense of menace. There are jump scares and slow scares, and enough false alarms to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. The Conjuring 2 is in many ways an old-school archetypal horror film.

He ain't afraid of no ghost...

He ain’t afraid of no ghost…

However, there is something interesting happening in the background. The Conjuring 2 might have all the basic ingredients of a horror movie, but they are assembled in the style of a tentpole blockbuster. To be fair, the big summer release date is a bit of a clue, as is the climax that features a sweeping race-against-time as the heroes try to desperately make it back from the train station. Indeed, The Conjuring already launched something of a shared horror universe with the spin-off Annabelle.

In some respects, The Conjuring 2 feels like something of a mash-up, reflecting contemporary pop culture’s fascination with mashing existing concepts together to form intriguing cocktails. What is really surprising about the film is how well it works.

"I'm sorry, you wouldn't happen to be able to direct me to the Marilyn Manson concert, would you?"

“I’m sorry, you wouldn’t happen to be able to direct me to the Marilyn Manson concert, would you?”

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Non-Review Review: Insidious – Chapter 2

Horror sequels are tough to execute, particularly where you have a returning cast. After all, strong horror films typically work by ramping up the pressure on the central character, building inexorably towards a climax. It’s very hard to follow on from that – where do you go? It’s very difficult to wind the tension back down and start ramping up from scratch, and the same trick is never as effective the second time.

Insidious: Chapter 2 faces these challenges, and – to its credit – it tries to work around them. It embraces an almost camp aesthetic to help compensate for the fact that it effectively kicks off at maximum volume, relishing the sheer absurdity of its demonic co-stars. It splits the main cast up in order to allow it to try to maintain a constant sense of pressure, while also delving into back story and origin. It subtly shifts its frame of reference from movies about possession and haunting toward a different sort of horror film.

However, these attempts aren’t as successful as they might be. While there are moments of wit, the humour and heightened camp occasionally causes tonal confusion. Splitting the cast up is too convenient a narrative device and diffuses (rather than maintains) the tension. Slasher and serial killer movies are hard to get right at the best of times, and the movie’s climax feels awkward grafted on to a possession story. Insidious: Chapter 2 has moments where it works very well, but also spends a significant amount of its running time groping in the dark.

Well, at least it's an amicable haunting...

Well, at least it’s an amicable haunting…

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Non-Review Review: The Conjuring

The Conjuring feels like a culmination of the nostalgia trip that we’ve seen with recent horrors like Insidious or Sinister, a conscious attempt to move away from the gore-laiden or found-footage-heavy approach to contemporary horror. Indeed, The Conjuring owes a fairly sizeable debt to director James Wan’s previous horror effort, Sinister. Not only does the film inherit leading man Patrick Wilson, it also follows roughly the same structure, right down to “paranormal investigators explore the house in a briefly humourous interlude.”

However, The Conjuring flows a lot easier than Insidious and is spared the third-act problems that plagued Sinister. The film is stronger for the honesty of its nostalgia. Even the title card is rendered in a font that looks like it could have been used for a forgotten seventies possession horror. The Conjuring doesn’t really push the boat out, and there’s nothing that will startle hardcore horror veterans, but there’s a very clear skill in its construction, an honesty to its affection and a sincerity to its charm that helps the film rise above so many contemporary horrors.

They ain't afraid of no ghosts...

They ain’t afraid of no ghosts…

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Scary Monsters and Super Freaks…

D’you know what would have been scarier than nothing?

What?

Anything!

– Bart and Lisa discuss Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, The Simpsons

The week before last, in reviewing Insidious, I made the observation that director James Wan made the mistake of “showing too much” in his horror film, and that movie itself suffered because it didn’t show any restraint in how it handled its creatures and monsters. The always wonderful Justin, in fairness, called me on my assertion correctly – who ever stated it was a rule that horror films can show too much? Surely it’s possible to show as much of something as you might want, provided you have enough talent and skill to do it well? Surely showing too much only becomes a problem when you aren’t skilled enough to deliver something genuinely terrifying?

Or is it something more primal? Is what you don’t see scarier?

Do I have a point?

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Non-Review Review: Insidious

I’m of two minds about Insidious, the latest entry in the “haunted house” horror subgenre. On one hand, I definitely respect its attempts to return to the roots of these types of films without dwelling on gore for the sake of gore. On the other, it doesn’t seem like the film is entirely certain what to show you when it can’t fill the screen with fountains of blood and guts erupting. Film is obviously a visual medium, but horror is very much an exception to the old maxim “show, don’t tell.” The problem is that Insidious shows too much.

A (para)normal family?

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