The Films of James Wan
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Dead Silence (July 20/07)
Although director James Wan does a nice job of infusing Dead Silence with an expectedly stylish sensibility, the film is ultimately nowhere nearly as compelling as his breakthrough debut (2004's Saw) - a vibe that can be attributed primarily to the lackluster storyline and star Ryan Kwanten's decidedly uncharismatic performance. The plot - which follows Kwanten's Jamie Ashen as he returns to his hometown to bury his wife and is subsequently confronted with a decades-old mystery involving a murdered ventriloquist - has been suffused with a number of distinctly uninteresting elements, and it becomes increasingly impossible to actually care about Jamie's efforts to get to the bottom of things (ie the character spends an egregious amount of time just wandering around the spooky little town). This is despite the inclusion of several genuinely creepy moments, with the Screamesque opening certainly the most obvious example of this. But Kwanten is simply unable to transform Jamie into a compelling figure; it's instead Donnie Wahlberg's turn as Jim Lipton that proves to be the only consistently bright spot within the movie, and the actor deftly steals each of his scarce scenes as a persistent (and utterly quirky) detective. Wan's efforts to duplicate Saw's mind-bending conclusion feels like a derivative, desperate move, and there's simply no pegging Dead Silence as anything other than an ambitious misfire.
Death Sentence (October 13/07)
Death Sentence casts Kevin Bacon as Nick Hume, a mild-mannered family man whose eldest son (Stuart Lafferty's Brendan) is brutally murdered during a gas station robbery. After learning that the perpetrator will likely get off with a light sentence, Nick decides to take matters into his own hands and subsequently embarks on a campaign of revenge against each of the gang members responsible. Director James Wan - working from Ian Jeffers' screenplay - has infused Death Sentence with a distinctly over-the-top sensibility that generally feels at odds with Bacon's low-key and sporadically powerful performance; the filmmaker is clearly going for the vibe of a larger-than-life revenge movie, complete with appreciatively brutal bursts of violence, ensuring that Bacon's efforts to bring depth to the proceedings are essentially rendered moot. And while there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of some of these sequences - particularly a pursuit that eventually winds up in a parking garage - the film's schizophrenic nature eventually proves to be its downfall (that increasingly silly and preposterous trajectory of the storyline only cements this feeling). That said, Death Sentence is generally entertaining enough to warrant a mild recommendation - particularly for those with a natural predilection for movies of this ilk (ie revenge movies).
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The Conjuring (August 10/13)
Inspired by true events, The Conjuring follows paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) as they agree to assist a family being tormented by malevolent spirits. It's a well-worn setup that's employed to watchable yet utterly familiar effect by director James Wan, as the filmmaker, working from a screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes, has infused The Conjuring with all of the tropes and clichés that one has come to associate with movies of this sort - including a seriously deliberate pace, a small child who can communicate with the entity, and many, many sequences in which characters creep around the darkened house. (This is to say nothing of Wan's tendency to substitute "boo!" moments for actual scares.) The viewer can't, as a result, help but wish that Wan and the Hayes had tossed a few curveballs into the predictable narrative, and it goes without saying that the film's ability to hold one's interest is due entirely to the strong performances and smattering of effective sequences. (In terms of the latter, there's a very good scene that unfolds entirely from the perspective of a circa 1970s video camera.) But The Conjuring suffers from a lack of momentum that proves impossible to overlook, with the film's start-and-stop midsection - ie something spooky occurs and Ed and Lorraine subsequently investigate - preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the material. And although the film picks up tremendously with its gleefully over-the-top finale, The Conjuring has long-since established itself as a watchable yet underwhelming ghost story that ultimately concludes on a hopelessly anticlimactic note.
Insidious: Chapter 2 (October 30/13)
Picking up where the first film left off, Insidious: Chapter 2 follows Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) as they continue to battle the demons that have plagued Josh since childhood. Filmmaker James Wan, along with screenwriter Leigh Whannell, does a superb job of diving right back into the world of 2010's Insidious, and it's worth noting that the movie, stripped of its need to develop the characters and the premise, often fares even better than its entertaining predecessor - as the film does, for the most part, move at a blistering pace that generally compensates for its deficiencies. (There are, in terms of the latter, far too many instances of characters creeping around spooky locales, with the less-than-effective nature of such moments compounded by Wan's ongoing reliance on tiresome "boo!" scares.) And although Wan's curiously low-rent visual sensibilities - the movie often looks as though it's been filmed with bargain-basement digital cameras - remains a distraction from start to finish, Insidious: Chapter 2 benefits substantially from a propulsive narrative that grows more and more engrossing as time progresses (ie Whannell's penchant for throwing in everything but the proverbial sink ensures that the movie is, at the very least, never boring). By the time the extremely (and appreciatively) over-the-top final stretch rolls around, Insidious: Chapter 2 has definitively established itself as a better-than-average sequel that seems to cement Wan's place as a top-notch horror director - although it's ultimately impossible not to wish that he'd return to his gore-friendly roots (ie this is the man, after all, responsible for the first Saw movie).