Chuck Koplinski: Effective, if familiar, frights haunt 'Conjuring'

In the fall of 1971, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) got a fantastic deal on a sprawling home in rural Rhode Island.

To be sure, it was a house that needed some work — the floors were in need of finishing, there were more than a few squeaky hinges that needed to be oiled and a good coat of paint would have done wonders for the entire place. Still, it was a home the Perrons could make their own, a safe place to raise their five daughters that was economically feasible. What they didn't know was that a malevolent spirit came with the home, free of charge.

James Wan's "The Conjuring" tells the Perrons' tale through the eyes of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), two well-known paranormal investigators who spent most of their time providing logical explanations to supposed hauntings. However, over the course of their nearly five-decades-long career, they came upon rare cases that offered up no logical explanation and could only be classified as supernatural in nature. The Perrons' case was one such incident, and if this film is to be believed, these poor folks were the victims of the worst real estate deal since Native Americans traded away the island of Manhattan.

The film contains many of the requisite scares found in productions of this sort. Inexplicable sounds and creaks are heard throughout the house, one of the Perrons' children begins sleepwalking, horrendous odors spring from nowhere and then the real fun begins as one of the daughters is pulled from her bed by an unseen force while Carolyn finds herself terrorized by a spirit that prompts her to do the unthinkable.

Wan does a fine job creating a genuinely eerie atmosphere, and as he has already proven with "Saw" and "Insidious," he's no slacker where delivering jolts that shake up even the most jaded horror fan is concerned. What's refreshing about the director's approach is that he goes about building the tension in an old-fashioned manner, using long takes and spans of silence to build toward blood-freezing scares that are often rendered by placing his camera at an effective angle so that the emergence of another character comes as a surprise, or a quick edit delivers a shocking moment.

Yes, there are special effects at play here, especially during the film's effective third act, but many of the movie's scariest moments are executed through Wan's skillful use of the most basic of film tools.

While "The Conjuring" is a truly chill-inducing ghost story, it's hobbled by the fact that it all seems so familiar. The structure of this film is almost the same as Wan's far better "Insidious," as it, too, dealt with a family being terrorized by a malevolent spirit after having moved into a new house. The correlations between the two films are far too obvious to be ignored, and while very few movies these days could be accused of being overly original, the sense here is that Wan is spinning his wheels, retreading the same material.

While "The Conjuring" is hauntingly well-made, there's nothing really new here. Whether the director goes over the same ground again in "Insidious: Chapter 2" to be released later this year remains to be seen.

'The Conjuring' (2-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Stanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, John Brotherton and Sterling Jerins.

Directed by James Wan; produced by Rob Cowan, Tony DeRosa-Grund and Peter Safran; screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes.

A New Line Cinema release. 112 minutes. Rated R (disturbing violence and horror.) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Much Ado About Nothing" aptly titled. (2-1/2 stars)

So, what do you do after making the third most successful movie in modern film history? Why, you make a modern version of a Shakespearean comedy with your friends, of course!

That's what director Joss Whedon has done as he has followed up "The Avengers" with a new version of the Bard's "Much Ado About Nothing," a long-time pet project filmed in 12 days at his home with a collection of his actor friends.

This is a noble and welcome entry in today's barren film landscape, and it's a joy to hear William Shakespeare's dialogue any time. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a mixed effort as the decision to film this in such an intimate setting, as well as the fact that the performers are a bit too familiar with each other, gives one a sense that we're eavesdropping on friends engaged in a party game rather than a serious Shakespearean adaptation.

The film gets off to a shaky start, as it doesn't provide the proper context for the premise of the play. If you're unfamiliar with this work, you're likely to be a bit lost during its first act. Consisting of two budding love affairs as well as a plot to destroy one of them out of spite, the Governor of Messina (looks like California to me ) (Clark Gregg) is visited by his friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) who is returned from warring against his brother Don John (Sean Maher). His most loyal officers, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) are with him, and as soon as the latter catches a glimpse of their host's daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), he's immediately smitten and soon a marriage is in the offing.

However, Don John and his two loyal charges, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), who have been taken prisoner, set out to destroy this relationship with a series of lies and deceptions. Meanwhile, Benedick is constantly sparring with Hero's cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) a smart, fiery young woman who gives as good as she gets. Of course, all of their bickering barely hides the fact that they are attracted to one another.

Whedon must be commended for keeping the play moving at a crisp pace as one key scene stumbles upon another, and the movie moves quickly from one event to another. However, in using this technique, many of the nuances of the play are overlooked, and not enough time is used to develop its characters. There is a sense here that the cast has gone over the play so often that it has become overly familiar to them, to the point that they rush through it as just another rehearsal. With the rapid pace, there's little time to savor the play's wit, and much of the comedy feels forced. However, once the tale turns more serious, the cast is forced to slow down, and as a result, a proper sense of gravity is found that serves the rest of the film well.

Overall, the cast is fine; however, special note should be made of Acker, who is quite lively in her take on Beatrice. In her pointed delivery of the Bard's dialogue, she convinces us that she suffers no fools, as her razor-sharp wit viciously cuts to the heart of anyone who dares cross her.

And yet, Acker has a sex appeal about her that makes you understand why Benedick would endure her barbed comments and still strive to win her heart. The actress brings a fire to the film that many of her cast mates lack, and whenever she's on the screen, it's obvious that much ado should be made of this talented performer.

Sandler and friends aim low once more in "Grown Ups 2." (1 star)

I'm sure that Adam Sandler is a very nice man. You never read anything bad about him in the news, and he's obviously very loyal to his friends. You'll find many of the same names on the cast list of his films as he has provided employment for a good many of his former "Saturday Night Live" cast mates and has formed his own repertory group of bros over the years. He's coasting on his success and bringing his friends along for the ride — nothing wrong with that.

Sandler's allegiance to his friends and the fact that he's on autopilot where his career is concerned is obvious in his latest, "Grown Ups 2," a sequel to his sophomoric 2010 hit about four high school buddies who reunite at their high school basketball coach's funeral, decide to vacation together and realize they haven't grown up a lick since their teen years.

This time out, successful Hollywood producer Lenny Feder (Sandler) has moved his family back to his hometown so that his kids might grow up in a safe and wholesome environment. He hooks up again with his pal Eric (Kevin James) who is a bit of a mama's boy, Kurt (Chris Rock) who is the world's laziest cable installer and Marcus (David Spade) who does nothing as far as I can tell. The four spend their days hanging out at Kmart, finding imaginative ways to waste time and along the way run afoul of a group of arrogant frat boys.

I know that I am not getting highbrow comedy when I go to see a Sandler film, but when the height of humor is a character pulling off a Burp-Snart (for the uninitiated, that's being able to belch, sneeze and pass gas in quick succession) we're scraping the bottom of the barrel. There are plenty of boob and poop jokes as well as some broad slapstick for aficionados of those clever comedic conceits, so despair not. What's perhaps most galling is that this film and its predecessor comprise nothing more than footage of the star and his friends hanging out, having a good time and getting paid for it.

Look, one of the reasons we go to the movies is to escape and be swept away to a fantasy world whether it be in a galaxy far, far away or a town where overgrown boys are married to gorgeous women and good times fill every day. As evidenced by the $41 million this movie took in during its opening weekend, Sandler's vision of paradise is the preferred fantasy destination for many filmgoers, and that's fine.

I just wish I didn't have the feeling I was being totally taken advantage of while watching "Grown Ups 2" as I couldn't shake the notion that I was watching nothing more than a home movie of a bunch of guys who were not just laughing at each other on screen but all the way to the bank as well.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski and check out his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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