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Insidious: Chapter 2 • The Family

The Spectacular Now

September 19, 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2 (* ½)

 As some of you who regularly read my reviews will remember, I went absolutely gaga about director James Wan’s 2011 film, Insidious. As a horror film, I felt that it succeeded on virtually every level that these films aspire to. Having seen so many horror films that left me completely unmoved, here was a fright pic that managed to leave me with the desire to look over my shoulder after exiting the theater and it didn’t rely on gore to work its magic. It was the kind of experience that happens less and less these days and used disturbing imagery in a way that is seldom seen.

I wish I could report that Insidious: Chapter 2 was a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. I wanted more than anything to love this film. On paper it looked great. The gang from the first film was all there both from a technical and acting standpoint and the initial theatrical trailers looked enticing. How could it possibly miss? Let me count the ways.

If you haven’t seen the original film you may have a hard time making sense of things in the sequel. Come to think of it, even if you have seen the original you may still have trouble, but I digress.

Wilson and Ty Simpkins in Insidious: Chapter 2

Anyway, the film pretty much picks up where the original left off. Josh (Patrick Wilson), the possessed patriarch of the Lambert family clan, is the suspected murderer of Elise (Lin Shaye), the psychic from the first film who was found with her neck snapped during that earlier pic’s denouement.  Josh’s wife, Renai (Rose Byrne) is noticing that those pesky spirits might be at work again and decides to bring in the deceased Elise’s assistant, Carl (Steve Coulter), to see what he can do. Later, Josh’s mom (Barbara Hershey), the two paranormal investigators from the first film, and Carl wind up on a wild goose chase attempting to identify the spirit inhabiting Josh after they read a message on some possessed dice. If it sounds ridiculous, my reiterating doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. There’s other silliness going on but you get the point.

The problem with Insidious: Chapter 2 is that the film tries so hard to explain things that it forgets what made the first film so great. ‘You’re supposed to scare people, stupid’ would be the message I would love to send to Wan and company if given the chance. What we’re given instead is a generally incoherent and convoluted film that simply doesn’t deliver the goods promised by the first film. If this is the best they can come up with, I would just as soon never have to sit through a third helping of Insidious.
The Family (**)

There’s a scene toward the end of director Luc Beeson’s new film The Family that I’m pretty sure was intended as ironic, although I would say it’s ironic for reasons probably unintended by the filmmakers. In this particular scene the star of the film, Robert DeNiro, whose character is a mob informant in witness protection, is being forced to sit through a standing room only screening of the classic Martin Scorsese film, Goodfellas. I suppose I don’t have to point out that the ironic humor is supposed to come from DeNiro watching a mob film in which the famed actor played such a memorable role. As the opening scenes of Goodfellas are heard off-camera on the soundtrack, it served to remind me how much I would rather be seeing Goodfellas on a big screen instead of this film. Goodfellas is a masterpiece, while The Family is mediocre at best.

The Family is supposed to be a comedy, although it’s probably one of the most violent comedies I can recall seeing in quite sometime.

DeNiro & Jones in The Family

If one doesn’t mind feel guilty laughing at bloodletting, you may have found your film. Supporting characters are beaten half to death with baseball bats and get their faces singed on a heated open grill. And those are just two of the film’s casualties. Ah, the chuckles that a mob comedy can bring to the table.

I suppose the violence would be a bit easier to take if said violence were played to comedic effect, but it isn’t. Things are nasty and brutal one minute and then the audience is expected to laugh the next, which leaves the film with a tonal inconsistency that left me scratching my head most of the time. This kind of thing may be welcomed in a Tarantino film. In this film, well, that’s another story.

As far as the story element of the film is concerned, The Family has far too many plot elements than can be satisfactorily resolved in its running time. In addition to the DeNiro character’s attempts to adjust to life in witness protection, there’s the mob wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who feels compelled to confess the family’s sins to the local priest, the daughter who falls head over heels for her tutor, the academically challenged son whose intention is to run away and the DeNiro character’s decision to write a tell all book about his life in the mob. Then there’s a character played by Tommy Lee Jones whose job is to prevent the DeNiro character from writing the book, while unbeknownst to any of them, the mafia don that DeNiro ratted out has located him—a plot contrivance that has to be seen to be believed—and plans to exact revenge.

Suffice it to say that The Family has enough plot balls to juggle that it could conceivably be expanded into a trilogy of films. Unfortunately, none of the its ideas are really resolved, leaving one wondering what a tighter script might have done for this film.

The Spectacular Now (***)

Shailene Woodley may not be a household name but I think if enough people see her revealing performance in director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, all of that should definitely change. The actress is not a total unknown, having had the role of George Clooney’s eldest daughter in the revered 2011 film The Descendants, but her role in that film did not allow her to exhibit the range that she shows in her current film.

As introverted high school senior Aimee Finecky, she exudes an incredibly winning combination of both intelligence and vulnerability. So much so, that later in the film, when Aimee seems to be getting the raw end of the stick in her relationship with the bombastic and overconfident, Sutter (Miles Teller), a fellow high school senior on the road to becoming an alcoholic, I was left with the sensation of wanting to jump into the film and comfort this wounded soul. Of course such things are impossible in the real world, but I think you know what I mean. If you see the film, you’re certain to feel it too.

It’s really too bad that Woodley’s character isn’t at the center of the film. I would much rather have seen a film about her than Sutter, the character that the pic centers around. Sutter is an annoying character for far too much of the film. That’s the way he’s supposed to come across, but still he’s hard to take at times.

Woodley & Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

He’s depicted as self centered and unaware of the feelings or the emotions of others for much of the film. In the latter half of the pic, as Sutter comes to terms with his inability to commit to anything of note—college or relationships for starters—he’s a bit easier to take and you begin to empathize with his plight. Still, a film centering around Aimee would have been much more interesting.

Sutter lives for the ‘spectacular now’ of the film’s title. He’s unsure of what his future holds and doesn’t much care. When the film opens, he’s just come to the end of his latest relationship and is on his way to flunking his senior year if things don’t change. That’s when Aimee enters the picture. She offers to tutor Sutter and begins to have feelings for him. Sutter sort of leads her on but eventually begins to have real feelings for Aimee. Still, he’s uncomfortable with the prospect of planning for his future. Sutter eventually reconnects with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) and learns the reasons why he left, leading to a denouement that’s both hopeful and somewhat bittersweet.

If there were a complaint to lodge against the film, it would be in its rushed feel during the final section. Some things seem to be glossed over and it’s hard to connect the dots at times. Still, The Spectacular Now needs to be seen, if only for Shailene’s Woodley’s incredible performance.

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