review//THE CONJURING 2

Grade: B-

THE CONJURING 2
Directed by James Wan
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe

The battle between darkness and light has made for some of Hollywood's best, spookiest, most thrilling tales. In the modern era of spiritual horror films, franchises like The Conjuring are make or break. Focus too much on the terror and you lose the heart. Focus too much on the hear and you lose the audience. Luckily, for horror genre fans, The Conjuring 2 lives up, mostly, to the fear and redemption of the original.

Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) is your typical preteen. Her daily struggles are more focused on trying to fit in than anything else. Along with her siblings, she lives with her single mother in a London residence all too becoming of the suburban 1970's. After a run in with a homemade Ouija board, Janet begins experiencing frightening happenings during the night. It becomes clear, over time, that what she originally attributed to being sleepwalking is something darker.

Soon, the Catholic church flies Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles) to England to investigate. Though the couple has dealt with some of history's most puzzling paranormal events, including the Amityville house incident, they approach this London event as cautiously as ever. Almost immediately scenes of demonic possession and physical destruction line each night and the life of this young girl becomes the supreme priority.

The Conjuring 2 relies heavily on knowledge of Ed and Lorraine Warren, expecting audience goers to have experience the first film, as it rightfully should. Getting glimpses of the couple's closet of horrors at their home makes it clear that the creepy story options are endless. This makes it interesting that they'd choose a story famously found towards the end of the Ed and Lorraine paranormal era to send up as the second chapter of the franchise.

The weight of the story relies on Lorraine's hesitation towards continuing to connect with spirits and investigate demonic presences. Very early on, she sees visions of Ed's death. Being unable to differentiate if the vision is prophetic or a warning, Lorraine's entire demeanor is unsettling, until of course she begins doing what she does best.

Human connections are at the heart of humanity and Lorraine's ability to connect with young Janet in the midst of terror and tragedy gives the film its ultimate heartbeat. There's risk involved, but that risk is important.

The film works well for the majority of the first and second acts. The scares are dutifully earned. It's the third act that unravels a bit, relying too much on CGI characters and over-the-top sequences. Despite an uneven story, the aspect of faith in the film never falters, which is something of a surprise. Exorcism films and the like have a tough line to walk and The Conjuring 2 excellently balances both genre expectations and poignant ideas about spirituality.

The cinematography is impressive and the acting never falters. The script could use some work and ultimately plays the biggest foul throughout, cheapening some of the film's more quieter moments. Overall, though, director James Wan has pieced together a summer thriller with brains behind it, which sets it apart from many of its genre siblings.

Rating: R
Runtime: 2h 14 min  

review//THE NICE GUYS

Grade: A

THE NICE GUYS
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger

Porn stars. 1970s Los Angeles. Mismatched private eyes. These are just a few of the ingredients in the clever pot that is Shane Black's dark comedy The Nice Guys. Perfectly stylized and purposefully smart, this is the exact type of romp and adventure the summer box office needs.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play a set of private investigators unwittingly teamed up for a huge celebrity scandal. With a large payday ahead of them, but complete opposite work ethics, the two set out to solve the fishy and tragic suicide of a popular snuff film actress. Through kitschy escapades and slapstick action, the two uncover more than they should.

From the onset, director Black shares, with ease, a very pointed and deliberately styled version of the buddy comedy. Gosling's Holland March is a clumsy, dim-witted fast talker. Crowe's Jackson Healy is subtly strong and meandering. They quickly become the epitome of "opposites attract."

Each artistic element helps define The Nice Guys as more than just a genre comedy. The set pieces and suave demeanor of the entire production is so perfectly retro. It feels timeless, but very specific to a time. However fun and nostalgic to look at, Black is careful to never let the idea of it all overshadow the true strength in the incredible resourceful script (written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi) and the defining performances of both Gosling and Crowe.

Given the supreme talent, it would have been easy for The Nice Guys to feel too over-the-top, and the abundance of promotion almost ruined the satire. But, handled with care by the entire production, this is easily the finest summer release in recent memory. It feels like a big studio flick from the same time period it represents, which is exactly how it should feel.

It's more crass than "The Rockford Files," but carries with it the heart of a true, fun crime caper. The plot almost gets lost in a ridiculous third act, but even the film's biggest faults aren't enough to take away the multiple rewards.

This is definitely worth a trip to the theater, especially during the time of year engrossed with sequels and big studio fare.

Rating: R
Runtime: 1h 56min

review//THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE

Grade: C+

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE
Directed by Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly
Voiced by Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Maya Rudolph

With stints as animators for hit films like Frozen and The Iron Giant behind them, first time directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly took on quite a different task: Create a profitable and engaging film based on a once-popular smartphone app. Where 2014's The LEGO Movie excelled at taking a risky idea and delivering a hilarious and clever product, Kaytis and Reilly's The Angry Birds Movie struggles to find its cleverness amidst a shaky plot and inconsistent humor.

The first half of Angry Birds is the real treat. The characters look similar to their smartphone game counterparts, with Red (Jason Sudeikis) getting top billing as the ultimately angered bird. After run-ins with the law, thanks to an unfortunate birthday clown episode, Red is sent to anger management class where he meets aloof Chuck (Josh Gad) and excitable Bomb (Danny McBride). The class is led by the light-as-a-feather Matilda (Maya Rudolph) and gets, deservedly, some of the film's best laughs.

While the story has to inevitably get to the introduction of the game's enemy pigs, the film would've almost worked fine without that element. Trusting the audience to recognize the friendly characters enough to just enjoy seeing them in their natural element could've been the clever twist to a head-scratching idea that worked for LEGO. Instead, we're given a funny idea and then force-fed an even bigger idea for the second half of the film.

By the time we see the birds join forces to fight the pigs, led by the evil Leonard (Bill Hader), we're overwhelmed with unfunny sequences and a race to new side stories that just get in the way. The whole Mighty Eagle bit, while traced from the beginning, becomes more annoying than heartwarming or encouraging.

The animation has interesting quirks that elevate it some, plus seeing it in 3D is a visual treat, but nothing can save the film from its own devices. While there is a lesson to be learned about personality, bravery, humility, and even friendship, it's so shrouded in hundreds of other attempts at story and humor that it all feels like a big pile of ideas with no ultimate payoff. Less would've definitely been more here.

Kids will get a kick out of the bright colors and family-friendly potty humor. Parents will enjoy the 97 minute break in the air conditioning. The frugal moviegoer will want to wait and get this on Redbox.

Rating: PG
Runtime: 97 minutes