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INSIDIOUS 2

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The law of diminishing returns, which had already begun to operate in the last third of 2011’s “Insidious,” resumes in full force in James Wan’s misguided sequel, which gets tied up in narrative knots trying to come up with an explanation for what’s going on in the haunted Lambert household. The first “Insidious” took a wrong turn in 2011, and this follow-up is forced to go along with it. The result is that “Insidious 2” is not only complicated but silly, and the way the plot is worked out is pretty much a structural disaster.

After a prologue that takes us back to 1986 and shows hubby Josh (Patrick Wilson) as a young boy (Garrett Ryan) tormented by a spectral woman—just as his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has now been—but being freed from her control through hypnosis at the hands of young medium Elise Rainier (Lindsay Seim). Then the script switches to the immediate aftermath of the first movie, with the older Elise (Lin Shaye) murdered and the Lambert family—Josh, wife Renai (Rose Byrne), reawakened son Dalton, his brother Foster (Andrew Astor) and toddler Kali (Brynn and Madison Bowie)—taking refuge in the house of Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). But there’s no sanctuary from malignant spirits, of course, and soon a ghostly woman (Danielle Bisutti) makes a threatening appearance.

That leads to a call to the late Elise’s duo of slapstick assistants, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), and they in turn bring in Elise’s old ally in the ghost-hunting business, Carl (Steve Coulter), who as a young man (Hank Harris) worked with her on the case back in ’86. His efforts to contact Elise lead them, and Lorraine, to the derelict house of one Parker Crane (Tom Fitzpatrick), who, while on his deathbed in a hospital where Lorraine worked, once terrorized young Josh. It turns out that the man, who had mommy issues that we see in flashback, had a part in a murder spree years ago, which turns out to be the key to Dalton’s recent haunting.

Working all this out requires more episodes of possession of the bodies of the living by the spirits of the dead, lots of chases and assaults that cut from one group of characters to another with bewildering speed, the reappearance of Elise’s benign soul, and the emergence of what appears to be a small army of murdered brides. With each twist of the plot, things grow more and more convoluted and absurd—there’s even one scene that’s a bizarre allusion to “Mommy Dearest”—and when one of the main characters remarks on the pain he’s feeling, you can’t help mutter snidely that it’s nothing compared to what the audience is enduring.

One has to sympathize with Wilson, a bland actor who’s here faced with the task of breathing life into two versions of his character when he can barely cope with one. He does get an opportunity to fight himself, but one wonders whether he welcomed it. Byrne has the misfortune of playing a character who’s almost constantly being threatened, which reaches a miserable nadir in the final reel, when she’s being repeatedly punched and strangled on the kitchen floor. Shaye once more goes the tongue-in-cheek route with some success, and Whannell and Sampson do their Laurel and Hardy bit to modest effect, but though Hershey maintains her dignity throughout, it’s sad to see this fine actress reduced to such stuff. The youngsters are all adequate, but the adults in lesser roles chew the scenery mercilessly (particularly Bisutti and Fitzpatrick), though to be fair they’re just doing what Wan asks them to.

The director also shows his propensity for bits of business that are becoming increasingly tiresome—menacing dolls, toys that come to life, radios that turn themselves on, and so on—not to mention slamming doors, accompanied by loud musical shrieks on the soundtrack (courtesy of composer Joseph Bishara). And though the production crew manages atmospheric visuals on an obviously low budget and cinematographer John Leonetti provides moody widescreen images, nothing in the picture delivers the jolts that the first “Insidious,” or Wan’s more recent “The Conjuring,” did.

Speaking of which, this sequel should prompt concerns about what a possible “Conjuring 2” might bring. One is probably inevitable anyway, though; after all, the tacked-on prologue here suggests that the “Insidious” franchise could become another “Saw” in longevity. That isn’t a pleasant thought.

MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE: CITY OF BONES

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An adaptation of the first installment of yet another multi-volume “young adult” fantasy book series, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is a mad farrago of elements cobbled together from every source imaginable from “Harry Potter” to “Star Wars.” It’s got magic, vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, angels, demons, killer dogs that morph into monsters, swordfights, a romantic triangle (or really quadrangle), an evil super-villain, an ancient master, and a beautiful butt-kicking heroine as well as a dashing hero. By the close you half-expect Sasquatch to make a cameo appearance. (In fairness, zombies are dismissed as non-existent, and there are no elves or fairies or dragons or hobbits—at least in this chapter.) Overstuffed, overlong (at more than two hours) and brainless beyond belief, it may appeal to the teen girls who’ve made the books a success, but anybody outside the existing circle of fans is likely to be bored silly by this elephantine piece of hokum.

Author Cassandra Clare’s distaff Potter stand-in is Clary (Lily Collins, who played Snow White in Disney’s misbegotten “Mirror, Mirror” and here tries to channel Kristen Stewart—hardly the best role model), an apparently normal New York City teen who lives with her single mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey). Her best buddy is Simon (needy-looking Robert Sheehan), a dweeby type who’s obviously infatuated with her. Lately, however, Clary’s been troubled by disturbing hallucinations, most involving a strange symbol, and when she and Simon stop off at a club one night after attending a poetry reading, she—and only she—can see a brawl in which a man of sinister aspect is killed by three leather-clad attackers. To make a long and tedious story short—there’s a lot of dumb exposition audiences have to slog through—the three killers are Shadowhunters, half-angel beings who identify and do away with demons controlled by a Voldemort-type villain named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, curiously anonymous). He and his thugs are searching for the tale’s MacGuffin—a chalice that’s apparently the key to rejuvenating the Shadowhunter line but can also bring him unlimited power.

It seems that Jocelyn had once been a Shadowhunter too, but had purloined the cup from Valentine and hidden it. Now she’s kidnapped by the brute, who’s also after Clary since she might know the prize’s whereabouts. So the girl joins up with the three young Shadowhunters—handsome Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, a blonde fellow with high cheekbones who had roles in both the “Potter” and “Twilight” series, played King Arthur in Starz’s ill-fated mini-series “Camelot,” and is about as stiff as a board) and brother-and-sister team Isabelle (Jemima West) and Alec (Kevin Zegers)—who take her, along with Simon, to their leader Hodge (Jared Harris) in their invisible castle, which apparently occupies a few acres of prime New York real estate (though it looks like an empty lot to mere “mundanes”—this fantasy’s terminological equivalent of muggles).

From this point the plot turns to chase mode as Simon’s kidnapped by vampires to serve as bait to lure Clary into a trap, which of course it does. Then all sorts of additional elements are added to the mix. There’s Luke (Aidan Turner), Jocelyn’s old friend, who turns out to be the leader of a band of werewolves. And a witch-demon named Dorothea (CCH Pounder), who just happens to live downstairs from Clary. She’s nothing beside a slinky fellow called Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao), who’s identified as Brooklyn’s Warlock King. And have I mentioned the pack of monks who live in a Shadowhunter cemetery (the titular ‘City of Bones’) who magically restore the memory of Clary’s lineage that her mother had magically suppressed?

If you find it difficult to plow through all of this, imagine how much more painful it is actually to sit through it on the screen, especially since the above precis barely scratches the surface, and there are throwaway incidentals that in the end come to nothing. (There’s a portentous shot, for example, that indicates that Simon has been bitten by a vampire, but that’s left hanging. And there’s a passing mention of Alec’s gay infatuation with Jace, but that goes nowhere too.) There’s exactly one witty aside, involving composer Johann Sebastian Bach; otherwise the humor, such as it is, is puerile. Everything comes to a head with a huge confrontation at the Shadowhunters’ castle, where Valentine shows up and a series of revelations, each more implausible than the last, occur while Harald Zwart (director of such gems as “Agent Cody Banks,” the second Steve Martin “Pink Panther” movie and the “Karate Kid” remake) and his editor Joel Negron work furiously to cut between three or four fights happening simultaneously. The result is exhausting, both visually and narratively. And yet there’s the threat of a sequel (‘City of Ashes,’ already in pre-production).

Whether that will ever actually see the light of is dubious, given the quality of “City of Bones,” with its numbingly convoluted and derivative plot, wooden acting and cheesy effects. After all, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “The Golden Compass” and “The Vampire’s Assistant” all died after a single episode, and “Percy Jackson” managed a second installment only by the skin of its teeth). This series should certainly meet a similar fate, though one should never underestimate the purchasing power of twelve-year old girls; just think of the “Twilight” phenomenon and of One Direction, whose concert film is just around the corner.