“Captive State” brief movie review

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts; or in the case of this movie, the director gifts us a movie that looks fantastic on the outside, but is a disaster on screen. There is a good science-fiction movie in there somewhere. But because of the poor direction, the movies plays off as completely disjointed, lacking any emotional connection to the characters. The concept for the film is quite brilliant. It takes the alien invasion premise and provides audiences with an original interpretation of this sub-genre of science-fiction. Often science-fiction suffers at the hands of the screenwriter(s) who becomes so pre-occupied with the world and technology of the story that they forget about developing the characters and plot. However, this film suffers more significantly at the hands of the director, but the screenwriting does play a hand in the confusing nature of this film. Incidentally, director Rupert Wyatt also co-wrote the screenplay, so it appears that he should have stuck to writing with co-writer Erica Beeney rather than directing.

Clearly, there is a solid science-fiction story in Captive State, but the story suffered as it was being written down, and even more damage was done while on set. The idea is original and good! The execution is bad. There is too much exposition in some places, like the beginning text-heavy scene and then too little exposition in other parts of the movie. Characters get introduced then forgotten, and John Goodman and Vera Farmiga are completely wasted. Literally any actor could have played these roles, and even other characters could have had their lines, and it would still play out the same way. I can tell that this movie is trying to provide me a post-modern thought-provoking story, but I am still not entirely sure what I watched. Upon watching it, I found myself grasping for whatever details I could find, and it was not enough to make heads or tails of what was going on sometimes. What we have here is a case of complex plot and simple characters. The antithesis of what makes a good screenplay. The idea for this film is certainly admirable, but the idea was lost in the translation from mind to page, and then from page to screen.

You can join Ryan at the cinema most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa.

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“The Conjuring 2” movie review

Conjuring2Outstanding horror film! Director James Wan has once again provided audiences with a brilliant work of the macabre and supernatural. From the writing to the directing to the acting and cinematography, Conjuring 2 is on par with, if not better than the first. Sometimes the best stories are true ones. And, although elements of the story have to be fictionalized in order to construct a cinematic narrative, grounding the Conjuring movies in the real work of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) infuses a dynamic emotional response that directly impacts the increased frightening nature of these films. One of the observations that I appreciate most about, not only this but the predecessor, is not relying upon the jump-scare to curdle the blood. Are jump scares part of the movie? Well, of course! What fun would a horror film be without the entire theatre gasping for breath, jumping, or screaming together??? But Wan goes beyond the jump scare and channels his inner Hitchcock to build suspense and intrigue. The horror film is best appreciated in a group setting. It is a genre that specifically engages the audience on a visceral level. Wan is truly a master at his craft; and I love witnessing how he continues to prove his ability to develop creative horror films.

Ed and Lorraine Warren are back; and have been called upon, by the Catholic church, to investigate the, what’s been dubbed as the “Amityville” of London. Following a self-imposed sabbatical after the investigation of the infamous Amityville haunting on Long Island, Ed and Lorraine fly to London’s Enfield neighborhood to evaluate a reported haunting and possession. Struggling single mother of four Peggy Hodgson hopes that Ed and Lorraine will be able to drive the evil out of her home, and more specifically her youngest daughter Judy. In an effort to discover the truth behind the well-documented alleged demonic haunting and possession, Ed and Lorraine find that they have also become a target. Facing their most challenging case, Ed and Lorraine are determined to help the Hodgson family and drive the evil from the house.

Following the increasing trend for a film, including but not limited to horror, to begin with an elaborate prologue, Conjuring 2 starts with a fantastic moving shot of the famous eyelet windows of the 112 Ocean Avenue house in Amityville. Often filmed from the outside, this shot sequence takes place inside the attic. A much more intimate feel, this was an excellent choice for establishing the case that launched Ed and Lorraine Warren into the public eye. There have been numerous movies and documentaries based on the arguably most infamous haunting in the United States, so it was not necessary for Wan to spend too much time on it. It is, however, a very important scene because the plot/case of Conjuring 2 is directly related to the experience that the Warrens went through during the Lutz investigation. Beyond the establishing a connection between the Amityville and Enfield cases, beginning with the Warrens in the middle of the 112 Ocean Avenue investigation allows for Wan to visually show how and why the Warrens would seek a self-imposed sabbatical from supernatural and demonic investigations. Moreover, this sequence of events that provides copious amounts of plot development material are also instrumental in significant contributions to character development. Although this prologue lasts less than ten minutes, it contains prolific information vital to the plot of Conjuring 2.

It should not be of surprise that Wan uses the camera very strategically to tell this visually driven story. From the rule of thirds to lighting to creative use of angles and movement, the camera is instrumental in setting the macabre mood of the film. One of the visual storytelling elements that Hitchcock was most known for, especially in Psycho, is using the camera’s placement and angle to foreshadow something or someone. Wan takes a page from the Hitchcock handbook and utilizes the camera movement in such a way that you are predisposed to feeling certain that something or someone is about to appear or emerge from the shadows but your game is thrown off when that doesn’t happen–but then totally happens when you least expect it! Throughout the diegesis, you will encounter moment when the characters are faced with inner demons that parallel or symbolize the actual evil entities in the film. Having this subplot concurrent to the foreground aids in creating and maintaining an emotional connection to the characters. Shocking the audience both emotionally and physically. By eliciting dynamic and comprehensive responses to the horror on screen, the film becomes an immersive experience–that is the brilliance behind this dark and sinister tale.

Beyond the exceptional direction by Wan, part of what makes the Conjuring franchise so successful is the exquisite casting. Patrick Wilson (Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel) are perfectly cast in these films. From what I have read about the real Ed and Lorraine Warren, Wilson and Farmiga respectively stay true to the real-life people they are portraying while adding in the necessary acting skills necessary to increase the impact and believability of the film. The quality of the acting that Wilson and Farmiga bring to the film is outstanding. Sometimes, a horror film can have an compelling plot but the actors are so uninteresting that it prohibits the story from making the impression that it should. Wilson and Farming make the characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren interesting to watch and add a performance quality to the film that keeps your attention the whole time. The degree to which they add a sincere care for the victims of hauntings to their respective characters is refreshing and will stay with yowling after the movie closes. As the Warrens are reoccurring characters in the Conjuring franchise, it is vitally important that they are as interesting to watch as the plot itself since their cases are the inspiration for the whole franchise, at least put to this point.

If there is one negative element in the film, it is the weak showdown. Not weak in that it was anticlimactic or uninteresting, but that it felt a little rushed. At 2hrs and 15mins, the film is longer than the average horror film, so it was not necessary to rush the climax of the film. It certainly does not mitigate the experience of the movie, but I feel that it could have been a little more intense. That being said, if you are looking for an excellent movie to kickoff your weekend, then this one is it! At last check, it out-performed both Now You See Me 2 (which should’ve been entitled Now You Don’t) and Warcraft. Even if you have not seen the first Conjuring, you will still enjoy this installment. However, seeing the first one will help you to better understand the Warrens and their unconventional line of work. Can’t wait to see where James Wan and the Warrens take us next!

Peering Through the Hole into “Bates Motel”

BatesMotelTVPremiering in 2013, the longest running scripted drama in the history of the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) channel is Universal Television’s Bates Motel starring Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga, Max Thieriot, Nestor Carbonell, and Olivia Cooke. Based on the iconic film Psycho (1960), directed by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock with story by Robert Bloch, Bates Motel takes us back to Norman’s early days when he was just a teenager–who was anything but normal. If you have kept up with the series, it is at a huge turning point in the character development of Norman and it just keeps getting better and better. Often shows as dark and heavy as Bates Motel do not have staying power or begin to wane after 2-3 seasons. Not this one. Just like Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho continues to impress, terrify, and influence even today’s suspense/horror movies, Bates Motel provides audiences with a glimpse into how Norman came to be while concurrently focussing on others who are directly and indirectly connected to the development of the most infamous psychopath in all cinema history. From visual and verbal nods even in today’s horror films to inspiring theme park attractions to television shows, the drama at Bates Motel continues to beckon audiences and intrigue those who find the characters fascinating.

Hitch_HouseSadly, executive producer Carlton Cuse confirmed that the show’s next season is slated to be the last, and will adapt the events of the series’ namesake. Although I wish the show could go on, it is clear that we are approaching the events that started it all. That being said, this upcoming season is sure to be exciting as we get to witness the gap between where we are and where Marion Crane checks into the infamous motel begin to narrow and close. Whether we are going to end the series at the point Marion walks in or recreate the diegesis from Hitchcock’s film leaves to be seen. One of the reasons that a series like this one can even be produced is that it has prolific material from which to pull and interpret–the fact that the character of Norman Bates has been studied for years, much in the same way the film itself has been explored–provides writers and producers ample opportunity for inspiration.

Norman and NormanSince we are given little information about Norman in the movie–note: that does nothing to mitigate the experience or effectiveness of the plot–his childhood to adolescent years and transition into adulthood is open for interpretation. For many years, film scholars like myself and others have often hypothesized what psychological and emotional experiences plagued Norman and affected his development. It would be all too easy and even a copout to state that he simply suffers a psychological disorder that was present when he was born. What I appreciate about the show’s portrayal of Norman is taking the cognitive and emotional atypical condition he was likely born with and throwing other experiences into the mix. It’s nature v nurture on a whole new level. Through the storytelling of Bates Motel, we have witnessed how his upbringing has had a profound impact on his development into the single most famous psychopath in cinema and now television history.

Emma_DylanThe show is not limited to the development and history of Norman, but also includes influential people in his life. Of course there’s Mother (Norma), but we also have grown to love his estranged brother Dylan, close friend Emma, and frienemy Sheriff Romero. Obviously Norman is obviously interesting to watch, but the writers and producers of the show make sure that each of the principle and reoccurring characters are fascinating as well. Dylan represents the only male figure in Norman’s life who consistently tries to help him, even though Norman often cannot see the love in his brother’s actions. Much like Norman, Dylan has also encountered much negativity and abandonment issues as a kid. Unlike Norman though, he found ways to deal with it and build a life for himself. In recent times, Norman keeps pushing the one positive male role model in his life away to further isolate himself. His close friend and coworker Emma is a very interesting female figure in his life. Unlike Mother or other females we have encountered over the series, he loves Emma and has done nothing to bring about permanent harm to her–at least so far. Emma is the only person who really gets to see the Norman hidden behind all his bizarre actions and obsession with Mother. Like Norman and Dylan, Emma had her own struggles with cystic fibrosis. Each of the characters is dealing with their own respective psychological or physical problems.

Romero_AlexLastly, prior to analyzing Norma, Sheriff Romero has played a key role in the life of Norman. Like Dylan he too is a consistent male figure in his life, but Norman has grown to resent Romero for his relationship with Norma. Romero has worked through his involvement in the drug trade and has grown as a result of it. Again, we have an individual with their own personal conflicts amidst the consistent conflict of Norman. The only other character, besides Dylan, who really knows what Norman is capable of. Romero is constantly trying to protect Norma from what he dreads Norman is truly capable of.

NormaBates1“Mother, what have you done?!?” Norma Bates is probably the most fascinating character after Norman. She is the closest to him and has been directly and indirectly responsible for his atypical development from his time as a child into an adult. Although she all but denies Norman’s psycho-social and emotional problems, she truly does recognize they exist. Unfortunately, she is so incredibly attached to him, having been abused and abandoned herself in the past, that she cannot truly provide the help he needs. Fortunately, she finally got him the help he needed–and should’ve received years prior–at the Pine View facility as we have seen in this season. It’s too little help too late. For the longest time, she felt that mother knew best and that no one could help Norman the way she could. Oh the irony. The attachment she was so fond of is regrettably the very thing that would bring about her undoing. Despite her best intentions, she really was the most instrumental in creating a monster. Her fits of rage and jealousy transferred into the mind of Norman and intensified the predisposition to sociopathic behaviors already present. Had she taken him to get help as a child, it is entirely possible that he may not have turned out to be the “psycho” after all. But, mother will always be with Norman; and no woman is allowed to take the place of her in his life.

bates_motelWell, here we are! At the crossroads between seasons four and five. This upcoming season is sure to terrify and excite as we buildup to the single most famous scene in all of cinema history. The reason the shower scene is the single most famous scene can be recognized by analyzing the length, actions, and sounds included in those few seconds. You can learn more about that scene by reading my article The “Attraction” of  Horror: a “Psycho”analysis. After more than 50 years, the Bates Motel and Norman still haunt our dreams and provide direction and inspiration for today’s cinematic storytellers. An interesting thought on the direction of these immortal characters and setting is the potential for a live theatrical production. There is certainly enough dialog driven material that Psycho and Bates Motel can easily be translated into a live theatre experience. It takes rich material to be able to be so versatile. Here’s to the final season of A&E and Universal Television’s five year homage to the infamous and macabre happenings at the Bates Motel. Thank you Hitchcock for truly being the master of suspense.