Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review Double Feature: The Family (2013) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

Another double feature this weekend. I went to see the action-comedy The Family starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones, and then I ducked into the bathroom long enough that I could sneak into Insidious: Chapter 2, the sequel to 2011's smash horror hit. Which of these films should you go see?

The Family (2013)

Here's the thing about Luc Besson. To American critics, he's the "thinking man's action director" thanks to his work on several of the most esteemed action films of the '90s -- Nikita, The Fifth Element, and Léon: The Professional are all considered classics of the genre. Even his lesser films, like Taken (which he wrote, but didn't direct), are often compared favorably to American action films. But if you ask European (especially French) critics, they'll tell you that Besson is the French version of Michael Bay, a man who may have once had talent but has since sold out for mainstream success, aping Hollywood for the last decade or so. His few successes, like The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, are more than balanced out by crap like the Taxi and Transporter series. The Family is a perfect example of the latter Besson, standing as a terminally unfunny Mafia comedy whose solid performances and all-too-brief action scenes do almost nothing to redeem it, illustrating why so much of the filmmaker's output in the last decade has never seen the light of day across the Pond.

The Family is about a former mob boss (Robert De Niro), his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their two kids (Dianna Agron and John D'Leo) living in France under witness protection as the Blakes, where their gangster attitudes force their handler, FBI agent Robert Stanfield (Tommy Lee Jones), to constantly shuffle them from town to town before the mob back home realizes that the guys they're after are running around causing chaos. Said chaos forms about two-thirds of the movie, and includes De Niro writing his memoirs and breaking a plumber's legs for being late, Pfeiffer blowing up a supermarket because its employees were making anti-American jokes about her, and D'Leo and Agron raising hell at their lycee by getting revenge on bullies and falling in love with teachers. The jokes are not only rarely funny to start with, relying almost entirely on worn-out Mafia stereotypes that Analyze This (which also starred De Niro) was making fun of fourteen years ago, but none of them ever do anything to move the plot forward. Family Guy is officially forgiven for its non sequitur "manatee gags", as at least a lot of those were actually funny even when the show was at its worst, while here I wondered when something was finally going to happen. And sure enough, when the Mafia finally does find out that the "Blakes" are in France, they figure this out in one of the most insultingly stupid ways possible, with a school newspaper finding its way from France to New York via Rube Goldberg-style mechanisms that would've made the actual Rube Goldberg shake his head in disbelief. This film possesses not a single thought in its head that isn't eye-rollingly braindead.

Not even talented actors like Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, and Dianna Agron can redeem this trash. All of them are wasted here in subplots that never go anywhere or hold any sway on the events of the film. Likewise, the final confrontation between the "Blakes" and the Mafia, when it does come, lasts all of ten minutes, at least half of which are buildup where we see goons in black coats stalking characters that we don't give a whit about. The action scenes themselves, what few there are, are fun to watch, illustrating why Besson should have perhaps stuck to directing instead of also writing this film, leaving the script in the hands of those who knew what they were doing.

Score: 1 out of 5

This is a painfully dull film, with nonsensical humor that frequently left me cold and not even a whole lot of decent action to liven it up. Easily among the worst action films or comedies that's come out this year.


Now, for the second film I saw in my double feature...

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

Insidious: Chapter 2 is a film that veers dangerously close to camp and incoherence on more than one occasion. The set pieces can get so ridiculous, and the acting (especially from some of the ghosts) so over-the-top, that one can only conclude that it was deliberate, given the slam-dunk awesomeness of James Wan's The Conjuring just two months ago. After all, Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are continuing on from the story of the first Insidious, whose third act took a turn for the crazy and unexpected by entering a dark nightmare world straight out of Silent Hill (minus the walls of flesh and rust). I wondered just how they were going to pull off a sequel to Insidious given how it ended the way it did, and with Insidious: Chapter 2, I had my answer. For better or worse, they went all-out bonkers.

Now, I am going to preface this review with a huge SPOILER WARNING for anybody who has not seen the first film. If you haven't, then stop what you're doing and watch it right now; I gave it a 5 out of 5 for a reason, and it should be available on demand for a couple of bucks. Furthermore, there is absolutely no way to discuss this film without giving away the entire plot and ending of the original, given how this sequel is, essentially, an extended third act for that film that picks up precisely where it left off. So, when you're done watching that, come back and read on.

. . .

Okay, now that we're all caught up on the first film, let's continue. At the end of Insidious, the father Josh (Patrick Wilson) brings his son Dayton (Ty Simpkins) back from the "Further", the dark spirit world where various ghosts and demons tried to possess him. However, in the process he brings back with him a ghost that had haunted him in his childhood, who possesses him and has him murder Elise (Lin Shaye), the psychic investigator that he and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) had hired to help Dayton. Now, Renai and Elise's former team are fighting to save Josh from possession at the hands of a malicious spirit.

If you go into this film expecting it to be as terrifying as the first, you will be slightly disappointed. Insidious: Chapter 2, while still a lot scarier than most films out there today, plays a lot more towards camp than pure terror, starting off from the first film's already crazy third act and driving it towards its logical conclusion. I was scared many times, but there were just as many moments of really twisted laughter to be had, moments that I'm sure were not unintentional. The mother of the evil ghost, played by Danielle Bisutti, chewed so much scenery that I'm certain her performance was a deliberate choice on her and Wan's part; every scene of hers had me rolling in laughter, to the point where I learned to expect some really dark comedy whenever she showed up. It was a shock for me at first, given that the first film, even in its third act, was chiefly a straight horror film rather than a warped, campy laugh-riot. However, as I thought about it, I appreciated what Wan and Whannell were trying to do here, even if it didn't necessarily work.

Where this approach hurt the film the most was in the story. The plot is largely divided in two, with one plot devoted to Renai trying to protect herself and the kids from Josh and the spirits following him, and the other dedicated to Specs and Tucker (Whannell and Angus Sampson) working with Carl (Steve Coulter), a psychic medium and former colleague of Elise's, to track down the origin of said spirits in order to exorcise them. Until the end, these two plots are largely unconnected, happening almost entirely separately from one another, and furthermore, the way that the latter plot proceeds indulges in one of the oldest cliches in the horror movie book, the serial killer with the psychotic mother. Not only did I roll my eyes when the nature of the ghost was revealed, but it took away a lot of the mystery surrounding the film's bad guys and made the parts with Renai and Josh feel like a low-rent '90s Ashley Judd/Morgan Freeman vehicle, only goosed up by the inclusion of the supernatural.

The cast is, once again, the bedrock of the film. Rose Byrne has noticeably improved since the first film, perhaps by virtue of the script giving her more to do. Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson likewise have much greater roles as Specs and Tucker, Elise's assistants, who once again serve as the film's comic relief. Their expanded presence here is indicative of the overall lighter tone that this film has. The man they cast as the spirit medium Carl, Steve Coulter, doesn't go nearly as crazy with his acting, instead playing it mostly straight and scary. Only Patrick Wilson really came off not looking so hot here. While in the first film it was Byrne who was the weak link in the acting, here it's Wilson, who was so solid in the original, who takes a step down. I feel that this has to do with the fact that he was perfectly cast in the original, his character being the ultimate "horror dad", while here his character goes in a much different and more menacing direction that he's not nearly as well suited for.

Score: 3 out of 5

This is going to be a polarizing film, especially compared to the first. While a lot of it is frustrating and doesn't work, its embrace of its own insanity means that it was never boring to watch.

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