Wednesday, October 23, 2013

THE CONJURING...SAL...

 
Lili Taylor: The Conjuring
  The Conjuring made a ton of money at the box office this past summer. There was a time when a horror movie making such loot was destined to become part of the national conversation. There would be an iconic character, or a moment, that would be ingrained in our minds, whether it was Linda Blair's head spinning around, or a snatch of eerie music we could whistle to amuse our friends.  The Conjuring, a competently made film that offers a couple of genuinely chilling scenes, offers nothing to stick in our memory box. In fact, it adds nothing new to the haunted house genre, and what surprised me most was that it relied on so many old staples: creaking doors, unexplained knocks, sinister dolls, etc. It's a pastiche of other, better films, ranging from The Haunting, to The Exorcist,  to The Amityville Horror,  woven together for a new generation of movie goers.   Warner Bros and director James Wan counted on the ignorance of contemporary audiences, as well as the very American phenomenon of accepting a reasonable forgery in place of the real deal.
 
I suppose I should be happy that the film was such a financial success. It means people are still going to the movies, and still in search of a good scare. Furthermore, the film didn't do anything to embarrass the genre. The acting is excellent: Lili Taylor is perfect as the mother whose family is besieged by evil spirits; Patrick Wilson is very fine as the ghost buster who comes to Taylor's home, and Vera Farmiga is solid as Wilson's psychic wife. The adorable young girls who play Taylor's daughters are believable in the scenes where they're supposed to be frightened. Ron Livingston plays Taylor's husband, and even though he doesn't have much to do besides look bewildered, he's one of those likable chaps that fits into a movie without distracting us.

Wan already had a track record of horror hits such as Saw and Insidious; the former was strong on imagery but light on story, the latter was a watered down retread of Poltergeist.  With The Conjuring, he steps up his game slightly, and achieves some spooky atmosphere. Still, he's a director enslaved to the genre, rather than an artist trying to expand it. The film runs a bit long, and by the climax, when one of the characters endures a full-on exorcism,  and bodies are being hurled this way and that, I was already worn down by two hours of creaking doors and menacing toys.   Of course, the possessed character is going to speak in a croaking devil voice, and she's going to levitate, and Wilson the ghost hunter will yell at her in Latin. It's all carried off in a stylish, professional manner, and audiences probably felt they got their money's worth. Meanwhile, I kept thinking Wan was forcing this ending on us because that's how these things are supposed to end. That is, unless, you buy into the hokum about this movie being based on a true story.
 
The Conjuring is allegedly based on a tale by two real life "paranormal experts" who spent the 1960s and '70s investigating various "haunted" houses. Most, they admit in the film, are easily explained away, sometimes by something as simple as wind blowing through floorboards. But a few cases, they insist, are real. Real enough that the basement of Wilson's home is full of items he believes to be conduits for bad spirits. As the film's final credits role, we see photos of the real people involved in the case. They seem genuine enough. A friend of mine who saw the film was peeved about the whole idea. How, he said, can a film like this be based on a true story when there is no such thing as a ghost? He railed at the paranormal pair, saying that he'd seen the real culprits on various talk shows and they'd always seemed like hucksters, rather than an earnest pair of do-gooders as played by Wilson and Farmiga. I was less concerned about this "true story" issue than the fact that Wan is being hailed as some sort of modern master of horror, when he's still nothing more than an inspired imitator.

In fairness, I'll give him credit for some scenes where the  girls play a game in the house and don't realize that the naughty spirits are getting involved.   Those scenes were scary, and the sound of hand claps echoing through the house was unsettling. Had Wan kept the film going in this vein, rather than aiming for a cheesy fire and brimstone climax, he might have created a masterpiece instead of a blockbuster.
 
 
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The eyes and the voice never quite matched up. He had puppy dog eyes, deep and brown, while his voice belonged to a 40-year-old perv. That voice came in handy when he played an obscene phone caller and sex addict in Who Killed Teddy Bear.  Even when he was a kid in Rebel Without A Cause, Sal Mineo looked younger than his years, but sounded older. I remember the way my parents talked about him. They always referred to him as "Little Sal," and there was always warmth in their voices when they talked about his movies. They'd talk about him like they were remembering an old friend. Sometimes my father would suggest Mineo was a "fruitcake" who got mixed up in some crazy Hollywood stuff that got him killed. My mother, a good Catholic girl, never believed such gossip. A very good biography  by Michael Gregg Michaud  described Mineo as a harmless fellow who simply wanted to work in show business, pursue his art, and occasionally indulge his kinky side. He died young,  stabbed to death at 37 in a parking lot. His murderer was brought to justice years later, but the circumstances were shady. My father still remembers Mineo now and then, insisting that the movies of the 1950s were the best. He still caps off most conversations about Mineo by asking, "He was queer, wasn't he?"

Using Michaud's book as a launching pad, James Franco's film Sal tries to reconstruct the final hours of Mineo's life. With a series of blackout scenes that recall the works of Jarmusch or Godard, Franco shows us Mineo (Val Lauren) lifting weights, going for a massage, dancing with some men at a disco, teasing his housekeeper, smoking a joint, trying to hold off bill collectors, and trying to drum up interest in a local theater production of PS Your Cat is Dead.  He has friends, and seems to be in pretty good spirits, considering he was close to broke and his name no longer meant much in Hollywood. Things appeared to be looking up, as Sal begins with Mineo learning that he's been given the green light to direct a movie, although studio executives worry he might go too far with his depictions of gay scenes.

Lauren does a good job capturing Mineo's oddball character. I like the scene when he casually thumbs a hardcore gay porn mag while talking on the phone to a friend, and he's funny when he describes a recent encounter with a man he picks up on the street (the details are too disgusting to go into here). Lauren's achievement, and it's considerable, is that even as we're aware of Mineo's increasingly creepy lifestyle, he seems like someone we'd like to know, a funny, intelligent guy who was loyal to his friends and cared about his life as a performer. The film's highpoint is a long scene where Mineo is shown rehearsing PS Your Cat is Dead.  Franco has a cameo as the play's director, barking directions offscreen, while Mineo struggles through a rehearsal with a rather cloddish Keir Dulea (Jim Parrack). Mineo is tied to a table for a scene in the play, and can only remain patient as Dulea fumbles for lines. The scene not only captures the monotony of rehearsing, but serves as a handy symbol for Mineo's life at the time: he was stuck, endlessly waiting for something to happen. The rehearsal ends, Mineo stops at a liquor store for a pack of smokes and some cupcakes, and then drives home to meet his grisly end.  

What's it all for? Why recreate the last day of a long-forgotten actor's life? Franco has directed a number of shorts, but his previous feature was The Broken Tower, about poet Hart Crane, who committed suicide at age 32. Franco is drawn to dark subjects, misunderstood artists who die young. Youngsters tend to romanticize such grim topics, but Franco doesn't glamorize Mineo or make him into a martyr.  He also doesn't try to present Mineo as being better or more important than he was, which is an admirable show of restraint for someone who obviously appreciated the Mineo story. Franco inserts some vintage news clips into his film, and peppers the soundtrack with some of Mineo's pop recordings. He even includes a poignant scene from Rebel at the film's end. Those touches don't hurt the film, but seem unnecessary, as if Franco wanted to shoot a New Wave style drama, but at the last minute tried to dress it up as an E! True Hollywood Story. Franco is better off, and much more daring, when he sticks to the mundane minutia of Mineo's life.

Even though much of the film feels static and uneventful, Franco is so committed to this no-frills style that he won me over. The languorous scenes take on a kind of dreamy effect, as if the film itself is trying to stay awake. Franco likes a lot of sweaty close ups, scenes of lonely night driving, and he has a good feel for crummy 1970s LA. He  directs the murder scene in the sort of hectic manner in which it probably played out; there's a good cop movie in Franco's future. I don't know who Sal is for, aside from Mineo buffs, but  Franco has the chops to be a director worth watching.
 

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