Archive for August 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

August 26, 2011

A remake of a TV movie from 1973, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark feels as though it, too, were made in the ’70s. Aside from a few (not overly graphic) slashings and assorted mutilations, the scares are resolutely old-school: creaks and rustlings and whisperings in the dead of night. An architect (Guy Pearce) brings his young daughter (Bailee Madison) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) to stay in a Gothic mansion he’s spiffing up to be sold. The little girl, Sally, is ill at ease even before the family arrives at the mansion’s ornate door: she feels passed around between her mother, who doesn’t seem to have time for her, and her father, who is busy flipping the house. The place, which we already know is bad news from an ominous prologue, intensifies Sally’s bad vibes. Soon she and we see why. Little creatures live behind the grates, in the boarded-up basement. They want Sally; they want to play with her, and they come and find her in the darkness.

Patiently directed by Troy Nixey, from a script by Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro and erstwhile Spielberg/Lucas collaborator Matthew Robbins (the pair also worked together on del Toro’s Mimic), the movie seems to aim for psychological ambiguity: the creatures may or may not be activated by Sally’s repressed rage. (She’s on meds, she’s seen shrinks, and she’s often seen drawing Vertigo-style spirals in her sketchbook.) But later on they’re explained as malefic faeries — relentless, vicious things gentled down over the centuries into the benign parental invention the tooth fairy. (You can appease them only by leaving them human teeth, which they acknowledge by leaving an old coin.)

The creatures have a certain creep factor. They scuttle like rats over the dusty banisters; they lurch, hunched over, on wiry arms and legs, looking a little like the monsters drawn by Berni Wrightson in the horror-comic classic “Nightfall.” There’s a fine, spooky moment when several pairs of hellishly glowing eyes appear under Sally’s bed, confirming everyone’s childhood fear: yes, kid, you’re right, they’re down there, and they know how to use knives. Brought to life by computers, the creatures are convincing, but there’s still that Stephen King theory about the monster behind the door: eventually you have to open the door, and more often than not the audience is relieved to see what the thing looks like, whereas before you could horrify them by working on their imagination. It doesn’t help that the trailer gave it away, either.

The muted photography, which already looks as if it’s been blown up for a drive-in screen, joins together with the loud bass-violin score to produce something amusingly retro. Sally and her father use cell phones; other than that, the movie seems consciously timeless, and most of the movie is a three-character play. This old-fashioned old-dark-house flick, rated R for “violence and terror,” is perhaps an audible unseen knife-slash or two away from a PG-13; nothing in it is as scary (the clown doll) or as gruesome (the paranormal assistant hallucinating peeling his face off in bloody chunks) as the PG-rated Poltergeist. The parents are distracted but loving; the little girl is kind of refreshingly uningratiating — if she smiles once in the film, I must’ve blinked and missed it. She’s plausibly haunted by inner as well as outer demons. The movie never quite draws a connection between the two, though; the subtext is there if you want to insist on it, but the script throws in too many details, forcing the creatures out of the shadows in more ways than one. It’s a decent spook show, and parents who’ve just moved to a new house should keep their small children the hell away from it; also, it’s not in 3D, which is fast becoming a big plus.

Fright Night (2011)

August 21, 2011

The scariest thing in the new Fright Night remake is the notion of Lisa Loeb playing a teenager’s mom. This seems outlandish to me, since I know for a fact that she was a young twentysomething indie-rock singer only about two minutes ago; but 1995 was a long time ago, it turns out, and here she is, age 43, as a teenager’s mom. Tempus sure does fugit like a mofo. The rest of Fright Night didn’t upset me nearly as much, but then the original 1985 film didn’t either. That film, which gained from a witty Roddy McDowall performance as a late-night horror-show host turned vampire hunter, was an agreeable throwback, in the midst of the slasher-flick bloodletting that dominated the genre, to old-school monster-mash thrills. Fright Night 2011 is a throwback to a throwback, only this time vampires aren’t nearly as scarce in pop culture as they were 26 years ago. If you seek their sparkly monument, look around you.

As in the original, recovering dork Charley (Anton Yelchin) becomes suspicious of the new next-door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), a charmer who works nights and sleeps days. Stepping into Chris Sarandon’s suave shoes, Farrell gives Jerry an additional rough-and-tumble, working-class sexiness that’s plausibly catnip to the (hetero) ladies and alluring to the guys he meets, too. (When a couple of cops stop by Jerry’s house to investigate a scream, a laughing Jerry puts them at ease immediately.) Jerry reads as a good guy, so when Charley starts pegging him as a vampire, it makes sense that nobody believes him. There’s some subtext involving Charley’s sexual jealousy of Jerry: Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) is hot to trot, but he’s too nervous to appease her. Jerry definitely wouldn’t be too nervous.

Fright Night will not survive parking-lot logic, wherein on the way to the car you begin to trip over the plot holes, such as a house blowing up and nobody seeming to notice, or various teenagers disappearing and nobody really noticing that, either, except for geeky Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who himself disappears fairly early on and nobody really notices. Has Jerry darkly enchanted everyone’s minds? The Roddy McDowall analog here is David Tennant, unrecognizable until he peels off his Criss Angel get-up, as a cheeseball Vegas magician conversant with the supernatural. Tennant is up for a good cynical performance, until the script dumps a backstory on him that kind of kills his arc. He’s supposed to be a fake who finds out that vampires are quite real, but instead he’s a fake who knows all along that vampires are real? I couldn’t grab onto who he was supposed to be.

Still, some of the movie is reasonably amusing — there’s a nice Children of Men homage set inside a speeding car — and director Craig Gillespie, whose previous film was the quirky indie comedy-drama Lars and the Real Girl, gives some real attention to human interaction (and vampire/human interaction). I get the feeling he wanted to make a classical vampire flick about repression, and some of it resonates nicely. (There’s even a quick shot at David Tennant’s lack of staying power in bed.) Everyone in the film has a weird, frustrated angle on sex except Jerry, who represents casually, carnally taking what you want when you want it. Only a metaphorical rapist like Jerry can be truly sexually fulfilled; everyone else is too human, too awkward, to let loose and get it on.

The movie was filmed in 3D — the extra dimension wasn’t added later, as in Thor and Captain America — and, as usual, it looks best when suggesting depth. Not a lot pokes out at us, though the sparks that emanate from dying vampires float lazily and rather beautifully out into the theater, like fireflies saying hi. Some scenes, especially an early one inside a missing kid’s darkened house, will get the audience squinting to make out what’s happening (in that case, not much). Various implements of vampire-slaying do invade our space now and again, and blobs of blood and billows of fire. But for the most part, there was no compelling reason for Fright Night to require special glasses. Have fun trying to find a theater showing it in plain ol’ 2D, though.

Final Destination 5

August 14, 2011

Theoretically, you should be afraid to drive home from the theater after seeing one of the Final Destination movies, which squeeze their juice from random ghastly events smashing, piercing and otherwise being unkind to the human body. You go out to the parking lot, look at your car: thousands of parts, thousands of things that can go wrong, thousands of ways to die. After Final Destination 5, I drove off obliviously, completely untroubled, thinking about whether I should stop off at the pharmacy on the way home. Maybe I’ve seen too many of these things, or maybe the series has simply fallen into the hands of filmmakers who can’t wait to get to the gory deaths but neglect to build up to them.

This stuff can be done well, make no mistake. Regular readers, forgive the repetition: one rental of Final Destination 2, from 2003, will set you straight and show you how it should be done. The set pieces in that film, directed by former stunt coordinator David R. Ellis, packed wit and tension into mini-narratives of luckless mutilation and death. The opening highway disaster was — I’ll say it — a masterpiece of chaotic simultaneity, people helplessly ramping up to bombastic send-offs everywhere you looked, one after another. Sometimes a horror film can break out and put roots down in pure cinema art, and those who turn up their noses at the macabre miss out on a lot of electrifying moviemaking.

Every Final Destination sequel thereafter, including this one, has, perhaps understandably, failed to improve on perfection. This time out, the opening catastrophe narrowly averted by our lead characters is a collapsing bridge that sends dozens of occupied cars a long way down. One of them, wannabe chef Nicholas D’Agosto, has the premonition of disaster and manages to lead a few of his co-workers off their bus to safe ground. After that, as usual, Death has been cheated of a few lives and works to balance the books in the prescribed grisly fashion. As usual, too, we get lots of ominous close-ups of dangerous objects that end up not having much bearing on the deaths. A guy receiving acupuncture is not killed by the needles. A woman receiving laser eye surgery is not killed outright by the laser. After a few of these movies you get a sense of the fake-out rhythm.

Not that it should matter, but most of the characters, except for the budding chef and his on-again off-again girlfriend (who’s immune to Death’s payback anyway since she didn’t die in her boyfriend’s premonition), are twerps. But mostly not twerpy enough that their deaths set a big sweet plate of schadenfreude in front of us. The exception is a Tom Cruise clone who becomes convinced that in order to avoid Death’s clutches, he must take someone else’s life, a new and interesting wrinkle in this series that the movie doesn’t bother to explore much. All it leads to is a tiresome climax in a dimly-lit after-hours restaurant kitchen, and in a 3D film like this one, dim lighting might as well be no lighting.

How’s the 3D? People get impaled a lot, the offending sharp instrument jutting bloodily forth into our faces; the movie’s other trick is gore, guts or brain matter spattering the crowd. Generally it adds nothing, and none of the sequences build or even rise to a crescendo — they just start, go on a bit, and stop abruptly. If anything, it’s diminuendo. That includes the bridge disaster, which happens so fast we don’t get that heavy Rube Goldberg feeling of Death really determined to get up for work. I have to say, too, the movie suffers in comparison with the real, chilling footage I saw this weekend of the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair, which as I write this is considered responsible for five deaths. That’s what actual disaster looks like, flat and undramatic and final. A Final Destination film shouldn’t necessarily follow suit — it should cackle at the inevitability of the doomed characters’ death march. But there’s no wicked fun left in this series. I’ve given it three chances now; there won’t be a fourth.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

August 6, 2011

The Planet of the Apes movies were never really about apes. They were about the flaws of humanity, shown to us in a funhouse mirror. In the original 1968 film, the arrogant Charlton Heston found out what it was like to be caged, silenced, treated as inferior and stupid. In other words, the white man got a taste of what it was like to be non-white. (It was 1968, and screenwriter Rod Serling never met a heavy-handed metaphor he didn’t like.) This summer’s new iteration, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is different in that it really is about the apes. The simians don’t seem to represent anything other than themselves, the low men on the evolutionary totem pole, who through the misguided magic of science gain intelligence and sunder their chains.

Rise is a top-flight summer entertainment, beautifully photographed (Andrew Lesnie), edited (Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt) and scored (Patrick Doyle). It moves with heedless animal momentum towards the moment when the assorted monkeys, led by super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), suck the air of freedom into their cavernous nostrils and bellow in triumph. It’s a crackerjack fantasy, but it’s also an anti-human one, and that will bother some people. Me, I felt at times that the film’s PG-13 rating hindered it. The apes’ revolution is largely bloodless and, with a couple of exceptions, glossed over. Given what we see them suffer in the movie, and given what we know real primates endure in experimentation labs by the hundreds, I wanted more. I wanted monkey fangs tearing the screaming faces off of soccer moms in their gas-hoarding SUVs; I wanted claws hollowing out the soft bellies of suburban dads plump with the flesh of abused livestock, with their spoiled Wii-addicted children saved for snacks. I wanted intestines coiled on the sidewalks, dangling from the well-manicured trees. But that’s just me. The monkeys are nicer.

Caesar’s smarts come genetically, from his mother, a test subject for an Alzheimer’s cure. The cure’s creator (James Franco) has a personal stake in it: his dad (John Lithgow) is losing his mind to the disease. Adopted by Franco and girlfriend Freida Pinto, Caesar learns a whole lot but misses out on the chest-beating glory of Being Ape. Locked in with his species peers after a protective assault on Franco’s contemptible neighbor, Caesar knows what he has to do. In an earlier, poignant scene, Caesar asked Franco through sign language, “Is Caesar a pet? What is Caesar?” Now he learns what he is, or what his role will be. The scenes in which Caesar carries out his plans, showing more brains than many a human character in summer blockbusters, are gratifying. Every slice of simian pushback aggression towards cruel humans primes us for the uprising.

When it comes, the apes again rely more on strategy than on head-bashing ferocity. Their battle is exultant without being sadistic. In one legitimately great sequence, a towering gorilla faces off against a cop on horseback (I’m not sure, realistically, why there are cops on horseback here, other than a callback to the 1968 film), fells him, looks as if he’s about to rip his helmeted head off, then just roars into his face, spraying spit all over his faceguard. The apes, I take it, have been discouraged by Caesar to kill men unless absolutely necessary; this gorilla, having near-definitively proven who the new boss is, senses that it’s sufficient to leave it at that. I wouldn’t have.

The acting here is functional (though Lithgow brings authentic heartbreak to his Caesar-in-reverse performance), with one dazzling and widely-noted exception: Andy Serkis, performing Caesar through motion capture (as he did with Gollum and King Kong), makes him a complex and emotionally accessible creature without anthropomorphizing him much. As the film goes on, and Caesar sheds some of the softness of his human upbringing and embraces the way of the ape, Serkis suggests that a fusion of homo-sapien ratiocination and powerful apehood would produce a shrewd and not remotely huggable hero. Bouncing around the confines of the colorful indoor playpen Franco has made for him in the attic, Caesar is cute. But he yearns for open air, the imposing redwoods, nature unconquered by man and his steel teeth. Standing tall and noble among his ape minions, Caesar is no longer cute. If he were human, we would say he has become a man. But in this case, that would be a grievous insult to him.


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