“The Conjuring” review

For my first ever article for The Russell Bulletin, it seems fitting that I should talk about The Conjuring, one of the best horror films to debut in several years. I feel like I have to keep my love of horror movies a secret from the general public, and my friends to an even greater extent. Some of my earliest memories involve my dad and me going to the video rental store (insert “those are gone now” joke here, people who can’t get past the fact technology changes) and picking out some of the scariest classics: the original House of Wax or Night of the Living Dead when I was younger, graduating to Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street when I was older. None of them, though, ever came close to the horror of The Exorcist.

The Exorcist was a movie of legend around my elementary school. If your parents let you watch The Exorcist, you got to be king of the playground. Kids would let you win at tag. No joke, one kid said that during his Student Government speech, and it got him elected Student Body President. My parents, though, were mostly sane and knew I would cry myself to sleep for the subsequent three years after seeing it, so they told me to wait until I was older. I resorted to only pretending I had seen it. (“Yeah, I’ve totally seen it. Remember when her head spins around? So totally tubular.”)

I apologize for the previous flashback, I was in my Rocket Power phase in 5th grade.

It wasn’t until high school when I made the call that I could watch it and would not cry. I talked my dad into renting it (I was very dependent on his desire to watch these movies also, in retrospect), and watched it on a cold rainy night in October.

Oh, how scared I was.

I always had a minor fear of the devil, so that movie ballooned it like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. I had to buy holy water from my Catholic friends in the most wacky misunderstanding of a drug deal the school administrators had ever seen. I thought that was the tops of scariness. I would never be scared again. And, in a sense, that was true. I thought I’d seen it all. Movies ever since have done little in terms of innovative scares. Every once in a while, you’ll have the calculated horror of Funny Games or The Strangers, or even the rotating fan camera action of Paranormal Activity 3, but nothing new really strikes out as, “Yes! I have never been scared like that before! You, film-makers, have added a new phobia to my list of things to remember to tell my girlfriends.”

Which brings me to The Conjuring.

The Conjuring is really nothing new. A scary doll, a family being tormented. These are all things that you can find in a McDonald’s in Pasadena right now. The impressive thing is the caliber that improves this often-gimmicky genre.

The acting is among the best I’ve seen in a horror film, particularly from Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren and Lili Taylor as the mother looking for safety for her family. The screenplay is not particularly revolutionary (usually a problem for me, as an aspiring playwright), but the passion that director Joseph Wan clearly has for the horror genre apologizes for these small missteps with a subtle flair of creepiness, in place of goriness. His concepts in movies such as Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious have established him, in my opinion, as the leader of this often critiqued genre.

To quote my father: “Anyone can be gory. Add blood. There, it’s gory! Creepy, now there’s something.”

Truly, though. The production design of this film is reminiscent of a non-indulgent Tim Burton. Everything is in just the right amounts to make sure we understand something is off. Not dangerous or innately scary, but just….off. The camera work is usually awful in scary movies, but this struck me as everyone in the film business saying, “Hey, we haven’t made a good one of these in awhile. Let’s try this time.” Maybe that’s ultimately frustrating (or maybe I just have no idea how Hollywood works). The Conjuring succeeds because it trusts the movies that have come before it, and loves them, and shows them to the audience with the utmost respect.

I always watch my films with the end goal of the Oscars in mind (just wait for me around award season, kids), and I see little hope. Only one scary movie has ever made it to the Oscars, and that was that scary movie from my childhood, The Exorcist. I wonder if those kids knew that they were watching history in the making. If it got one nomination, I would consider it a success. Production Design is a long shot, but it would be deserved. Make-up and Hair would be the closest possibility, but horror movies are often overlooked for period pieces……or The Hobbit (curse you, Peter Jackson!). Too bad inanimate objects can’t win awards, because then I would have to give Best Supporting Actress to Annabelle, the doll that’s too big to be small and too little to be life-size, but sure knows how to look like Amy Winehouse’s final hours.

Is that too soon?

Disney is mostly a television company

According to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, individual box office flops like The Lone Ranger aren’t a huge problem for Disney because a majority of its revenue comes from its broadcast and cable television divisions. Cable is here to stay for the foreseeable future – as long as that’s true, Disney properties like ESPN and the Disney Channel will continue to do just fine: 

How Disney makes money

The movie business is a rotten thing. American audiences don’t go the movies every week, so they have to be lured with egregiously expensive marketing campaigns for a handful of tentpole movies that, if they blow up, can destroy quarterly earnings for the film division and take down careers. The TV business is somewhat the opposite. The subscription fee model (wherein a sliver of your cable bill goes straight to the networks’ pockets) guarantees that cable networks get paid with or without a “hit.”

How to fix Man of Steel’s ending

(Warning: This post focuses on the ending to the recently released Man of Steel. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t be an idiot and continue reading because obviously there will be spoilers.) 

Man of Steel, the first Superman film in seven years, finally came out last Friday after nearly a year of teasers and hype-building. The end result of a collaboration between Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer, the film gets a lot right: we see an interesting take on the Fortress of Solitude and the presence of Jor-El in Superman’s life, a cast of strong female characters that don’t simply scream at every explosion (Pepper Potts, I’m looking at you – how many times in the Iron Man series has she screamed “TONY!”?), and a fleshed-out backstory of Superman growing up feeling like an outsider. Clark’s powers manifesting as autism-like symptoms was brilliant in this regard.

But the movie also got a lot wrong. As much as I love the guy, Michael Shannon was terrible as General Zod. The eye-bulging, rage-mode screaming can only carry a villain so far before it wears thin. The flashbacks to Clark’s childhood could have been executed better – it was blatantly obvious that Clark pushed that bus out of the water, and how did Pete get out of the bus for Clark to have to save him anyway? I won’t even get into how odd it seemed that Zod and company had all of Clark’s powers after less than 24 hours on Earth. These complaints are relatively minor compared to the problems facing the final thirty minutes.

As mentioned in basically every review on the web, the final battle between Superman and Zod took way too long and deviated way too much from the character in order to give the audience a massive, city-destroying battle. It’s absurd to show Superman killing to save a handful of people when the destruction wrought in the fist-fight moments before likely killed dozens of innocent bystanders.

Here’s how you fix the ending to Man of Steel in a way that reduces the total length of the film without taking away the badass fight scene: replace the giant Kyptonian ice-snakes at the World Engine with Zod. It makes logical sense: have Faora and the other Zod minions protect the main ship, have Zod protect the very machine that will turn Earth into Krypton, Zod’s stated one-and-only goal

This allows Superman and Zod to fight as hard as they want and not put any civilians in danger, which fits better with Clark’s M.O. for most of the movie. It would let Zod disappear without Superman having to kill him: just give us some BS about the two machines being sucked into the Phantom Zone at the same time because they’re synced up. I’d buy it. 

It also allows for a throwback to the original 1978 Superman. As the hole to the Phantom Zone opens, Clark hears Lois Lane on the other side of the Earth getting pulled in from her end. He flies faster than ever to go save her. Here, we insert some voice-over from Jor-El, along the lines of “The only way to see just how powerful you’ve become is to keep pushing yourself” and “You can save her.” This would make fans of the Reeves Superman a little bit more content with the reboot and make him saving her more impressive – no one thought he might fail when he was starting from a few hundred meters away.

If you’ve got any comments or other ideas about how things should have gone down, I’d love to hear them. Hit me up, I’m @kylebrussell on Twitter.

Steven Soderbergh on why it costs so much to release a movie

It turns out that the movie studios basically have no idea how much money they’re going to make from a given release, so they just throw money at the problem. End result: more blockbusters with massive budgets and fewer “singles and doubles.”

So then there’s the expense of putting a movie out, which is a big problem. Point of entry for a mainstream, wide-release movie: $30 million. That’s where you start. Now you add another 30 for overseas. Now you’ve got to remember, the exhibitors pay half of the gross, so to make that 60 back you need to gross 120. So you don’t even know what your movie is yet, and you’re already looking at 120. That ended up being part of the reason why the Liberace movie didn’t happen at a studio. We only needed $5 million from a domestic partner, but when you add the cost of putting a movie out, now you’ve got to gross $75 million to get that 35 back, and the feeling amongst the studios was that this material was too “special” to gross $70 million. So the obstacle here isn’t just that special subject matter, but that nobody has figured out how to reduce the cost of putting a movie out. There have been some attempts to analyze it, but one of the mysteries is that this analysis doesn’t really reveal any kind of linear predictive behavior, it’s still mysterious the process whereby people decide if they’re either going to go to a movie or not go to a movie. Sometimes you don’t even know how you reach them. Like on Magic Mike for instance, the movie opened to $38 million, and the tracking said we were going to open to 19. So the tracking was 100% wrong. It’s really nice when the surprise goes in that direction, but it’s hard not to sit there and go how did we miss that? If this is our tracking, how do you miss by that much?