Archive for the ‘remake’ category

Carrie (2013)

October 20, 2013

Chloe-Moretz-in-Carrie-2013-Movie-Image4As the legend has it, Stephen King’s Carrie almost didn’t see the light of day. King wrote the infamous opening (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), hated it, and circular-filed it; his wife Tabitha salvaged the pages from the trash, read them, and encouraged King to see the story through. “It bit hard,” wrote Harlan Ellison, who observed that the manuscript got passed around to various female Doubleday employees, all of whom were knocked back. It’s primal stuff, essentially King’s unintentional rewrite of Judy Blume (Are You There Satan? It’s Me, Carrie). The story runs thick with blood of all kinds: menstrual, porcine, finally redrum. It also runs hot — it’s a fever-dream novel, slick with the sweat of sickness, dread, rage.

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version saw the story’s melodramatic potential and pumped it up into a perverse black comedy. The new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), takes the material rather more seriously. Here and there, it feels closer in tone to King’s emotionally heavy novel than De Palma’s abracadabra show did. That doesn’t mean it’s the better film, nor is it an across-the-board worse film. The story has been transplanted to today, so that when poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) receives her chthonic humiliation in the girls’ shower room, her chief tormentor captures it on her phone camera and uploads it to YouTube. This nod to cyberbullying can’t truly take hold, though, because Carrie doesn’t have the internet — or much else — at home. What she does have is the ultimate religious-nut mother (Julianne Moore), who in this telling came close to killing newborn Carrie with her seamstress’ scissors and enjoys scarifying her own flesh with other tools of the sewing trade.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as oppressed daughter and lunatic mother in the ’76 film, sank their teeth into the purple material; Spacek underplayed touchingly, Laurie camped it up to the rafters. Moretz and Moore come across more like the unhappy people you might actually meet — their scenes in their dreary home are borderline depressing. Moretz’ casting has been criticized because she isn’t nerdy-looking, but then neither was Rebecca Sedwick, driven to suicide last month after almost a year of cyberbullying. (Really, none of the actresses who’ve played Carrie — including Angela Bettis in a 2002 TV version — have exactly matched King’s description of her as “a frog among swans.”) Moretz’ Carrie is ostracized because of her social awkwardness and her strange aura of religious punitiveness — she’s more like an Amish girl plopped down into a typical suburban high school.

Kimberly Peirce brings out the story’s complex web of mixed feelings between females, who resent, pity or fear each other. The males in the film, as in the book and in De Palma’s version, exist only to do the girls’ bidding. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty about her limited role in Carrie’s humiliation and prompts her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom. The ringleader of the tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), enlists her boyfriend to assist in the shockingly cruel climactic prank involving that famous bucket of pig’s blood. Originally written when feminism was really starting to take hold in America, Carrie hasn’t much optimism about the higher morality of girls and women. Nor should it: it’s a horror story, not designed to be comforting. A few, like Sue or the conscientious gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), feel compassion for Carrie. But they’re not enough.

Which leads us to the climax. De Palma filmed it as a gleeful revenge of the nerd, a cascading grand finale breaking out split-screen images of cathartic force. Peirce doesn’t split the screen, though she does make use of computer effects unimaginable back in 1976. Rather than standing disturbingly stock still like Sissy Spacek, Moretz poses and gestures like an ancient witch-woman (the blood smears spilling down her face like tribal marks complete the effect) while everyone who laughed at her goes spinning into glass doors or catches fire or is trampled to death under fabulous prom-night heels. The final exchange between Carrie and Chris is painfully, almost sadistically drawn out. Peirce knows she can’t go whole-hog whoo-hoo over high-school carnage the way De Palma did, not in the era of Columbine and Sandy Hook. She holds back a bit. So what could’ve been a newly relevant reheating of old material — showing what bullying does to victims and to bullies — comes across as a missed opportunity. Still, since most of Carrie has always been a drama working up to a horror-film climax, and since that drama is sensitively directed and powerfully acted, the new version passes muster as a different take that will not, in most people’s hearts, replace De Palma’s. Let them co-exist.

Maniac (2013)

June 7, 2013

horror-movie-reviews-maniacMy response to a remake of 1980′s Maniac substituting puppy-eyed Elijah Wood for slimy man-mountain Joe Spinell was, at first, a hearty “Whaaa?” Then I thought it over, and the idea sounded more and more intriguing. If you’re going for a fresh approach to the notoriously vicious grindhouse-horror landmark, you don’t try to compete with Spinell; you cast against him as aggressively as possible. Ergo, Elijah Wood.

Spinell’s Frank Zito, a tormented mama’s boy who scalped women and planted the tattered skullflesh on mannequins in his grubby apartment, left big and probably smelly shoes to fill. The recasting works from one perspective: Elijah Wood can more plausibly lure victims into a false sense of security — aww, lookit that face, he couldn’t hurt a fly! — than Spinell could. Well, Norman Bates didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly either, so that angle’s been done. Which leaves us with the question of whether Wood is plausible as someone who can do what we see his character do in this film. Emotionally, his Frank is as chaotic and filled with misogynistic loathing as his forebear. Physically … I don’t know, he just doesn’t look to have the upper-arm strength to be peeling off scalps with the ease with which he does it. Wood commits himself fully, but the performance seems to be a thoroughgoing, conscious effort to break away from Frodo and all his other good-boy roles. He was creepier, wordlessly, in Sin City, really.

Leave it to the French to conclude that a remake of a quintessentially American (and steadfastly ’70s New York) fleapit horror flick is not only possible but necessary. This Maniac was produced by Alexandre Aja (High Tension), co-written by Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who’s worked on all of Aja’s films), and directed by Aja associate Franck Khalfoun. What these gentlemen bring to the party that original director William Lustig didn’t is a certain cold Gallic pizzazz, which sometimes presents as pretension. The major stylistic difference is that almost the entire movie is filmed from Frank’s (often splintered) perspective, which I guess is a way to pull us into complicity with ghastly murders. At times it’s like a feature-length reiteration of the opening scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or maybe Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void crossed with American Psycho.

The you-are-the-killer viewpoint works best in quieter moments, when Frank meets and develops an interest in Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who likes to take pictures of mannequins. At one point, when the couple attend a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the camera stays stuck on Anna’s lovely face until she turns to Frank (us) and says “Stop staring! You’re missing the movie.” Some similar moments are effective, as when people react to Frank/us as if he/we were gawking at them uncomfortably. There’s enough male-gaze stuff in the movie to keep film theorists contentedly scribbling for years.

Overall, though, the camera eye doesn’t do much for the plot, and in any case it’s applied inconsistently, sometimes leaping out of Frank’s POV right when that POV threatens to disturb us the most — when he’s killing. There’s a protracted murder in a parking lot, and another in a snobby lady’s penthouse, in which the camera moves off to show us Frank and what he’s doing. What it reads like, more than anything, is an excuse to show off the explicit, excruciating gore effects by the legendary KNB team. (Aside: gorehounds will want to seek out the uncut 89-minute version for all the undiminished scalpings, stabbings, and meat-cleaver-to-face action. There’s an 87-minute cut out there that more or less renders it R-rated, and nobody wants an R-rated Maniac.)

The milieu has moved from grimy ’70s NYC to shiny millennial L.A., and, for me, the most disturbing moments seem to capture the City of Angels as a city of demons, or at least a city that turns its back on demons. During the parking-lot murder, Frank’s gaze tilts up to the L.A. skyline at night, with windows glittering in the dark background, full of people oblivious to (or indifferent to) the carnage down below. It’s a fine cold moment, echoed later when Frank, before carving up the snobby lady, stares out at the lights of the city. We wonder if there are similar scenes playing out elsewhere in Los Angeles. Maniac also uses sound to put us in an unsettled mood. The soundscape, with a score credited to someone named “Rob” (no relation), deals in the sort of menacing, rumbling, unearthly ruckus associated with Thomas Bangalter’s work for Gaspar Noe. It’s like being inside someone’s upset stomach — lots of low-register brown-note amplified-heartbeat stuff. It’s effective but occasionally overdone.

Ultimately, though, the flashy style outclasses the plot and the dime-store psychology imported directly from the simpler 1980 film. Frank is still nursing some sort of homicidal fixation on his promiscuous (or possibly straight-up whorish) mother, and he talks to the gory mannequins in his apartment as if they were disloyal girlfriends. He sees his mother in the women he kills, a motive which at this point strikes me as either faithfully retro or significantly played-out. Like a lot of the crimson-soaked French new-wave horror, this Maniac is more of an exercise in style than a genuine expression of insanity. Oddly, too, considering how approachable this Frank appears to be as opposed to Spinell’s Frank, Spinell actually made us feel that meeting the photographer (Caroline Munro) might turn him around from his psychotic extracurriculars, seeking solace in art. We don’t especially feel that way about Wood’s characterization. We just seem to be marking time along with Frank until he goes after Anna. A climactic bit involving a car crash falls into the so-abrupt-it’s-funny category but doesn’t seem meant to be taken that way.

It’s a nice try (very likely the only time “nice” will be used as a descriptive vis-a-vis this thing). These French fear-makers want to bring us back the unapologetic shock-horror and splatter of the old days, but they can’t help wedding it all to avant-garde techniques and sensibilities that end up distancing us from such mundane things as tension and suspense. This Maniac isn’t a hollow travesty — it was obviously made by folks who respect the original, and it’s nobody’s idea of a surefire big hit — but it feels pointless just the same, a gimmicky and sometimes labored retelling of a story that, it turns out, really only worked 33 years ago with an actor who looked like an Easter Island statue slathered in pizza grease.

Evil Dead (2013)

April 7, 2013

Evli-Dead_03If you ever wondered what the Evil Dead movies might have been like without the central wit and charisma of their star Bruce Campbell, the answer now awaits you at a theater near you. The new Evil Dead remake certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore; tons of the stuff spatter, pool, mist, spurt, bead up and roll off. Much has also been made of the majority of the effects being realized “practically” — that is, with old-school latex and Karo syrup, not computer-generated flesh and blood. Such things, I suppose, are to be honored in this era of hermetically-sealed fantasy film, when you know that most of what you see is not only fake but doesn’t exist in real space. The drenched and sticky actors in Evil Dead would no doubt tell you it all existed in real space, all right.

What’s missing, first and foremost, is the incomparable real-guy presence of Bruce Campbell, who in the original three Evil Dead films directed by Sam Raimi came close to defining himself as the Buster Keaton of splatstick. Raimi never tired of tormenting Campbell by making him do one grotesque, painful thing after another, because Raimi knew that Campbell, at least in his youthful prime, was fun to watch being bashed around — not because we disliked him but because he looked as though he could shrug it off. In the new Evil Dead, there is no Campbell analogue, no character named Ash; the closest the film comes is a frail-looking recovering addict named Mia (Jane Levy), who spends a good chunk of the movie locked in the basement of a cabin, possessed by a demon who makes her do things like split her tongue in half with a knife. Despite this, later on, after the demon has vacated her, she can speak perfectly well.

The plot is similar. Five college-age people come to a cabin in the woods. I use those last four words advisedly, because if you have seen last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, this film will seem kind of late to the party. The trip to the cabin, it seems, is a last-ditch effort of sorts to rehab Mia. Accompanying her is her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), a registered nurse. Olivia apparently has lots of detox meds and tranquilizers to use on Mia, leading me to imagine a scene back at the hospital where a pharmacist yells “What happened to all our detox meds and tranquilizers?”

A mysterious book is discovered in the basement. Eric, being a horror-movie character and therefore staggeringly stupid, reads aloud from the book and unleashes demons, one of which promptly infests Mia, who in turn corrupts Olivia, and we’re off to the races. The movie hits the beats that Evil Dead fans will expect and perhaps be bored by. A character’s hand is possessed, requiring its removal by way of an electric carving knife. A nail gun, a shotgun and a chainsaw all get a bow on stage. What’s missing, to go further, is not only Campbell but the spirit of play and prankishness that he represented. The new director, Fede Alvarez, is no Sam Raimi, and that’s not to say he’s a bad filmmaker; he could be a fine one, given the right material. But Raimi made these films with energy and gutbucket humor, whereas Alvarez goes about his work grimly, as though the Evil Dead films were works of the utmost gravity.

Yes, yes, this is probably supposed to be a new re-imagining of Evil Dead, not slavishly following in Raimi’s footsteps. I would just as soon see Alvarez directing something fresh, and I would rather not see Raimi, Campbell and co-producer Rob Tapert lending their imprimatur to this remake as producers, thus smudging their own names and leaving a bad aftertaste on the original franchise. The main disappointment of the new Evil Dead is that it simply isn’t very fun. The original films, particularly the two sequels, were essentially comedies, and Evil Dead II achieved a level of grisly pop art. The new film seems as though it might be interesting for a while, using demonic possession as a metaphor for drug addiction (and nobody believing the hysterical and withdrawal-scourged Mia when she starts seeing the evil dead), but soon that gets buried in arterial spray and close-ups of someone pulling a hypodermic needle out of his face. To top it off, this thing is too slick. It’s beautifully lighted, and it cost $17 million and looks it. The first Evil Dead cost about $400,000, and Raimi had to invent camera rigs to get some of the insane shots he wanted. No invention here.

Frankenweenie (2012)

October 6, 2012

Imagine this: You’re working for a huge family-friendly conglomerate. You direct a half-hour film to be shown before a re-release of one of the conglomerate’s classic movies. The conglomerate hates your film — too scary for kids, they say — and fires you. Twenty-eight years later, the same conglomerate hands you $39 million to remake the same film they hated, in 3D stop-motion. They even let you make it in black and white. This, of course, is the story of Tim Burton, who made a short called Frankenweenie in 1984 for Disney, which has now thrown its full marketing weight behind the new remake. The lesson here is that if you make enough money (all told, Burton’s films have earned $1.7 billion for various studios, including Disney), your failures will be forgiven eventually. (Disney did acknowledge its short-sightedness earlier, releasing the first Frankenweenie on videotape in 1994 and then putting it on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD as an extra.)

The 1984 Frankenweenie wasn’t a failure, though; it was a charming tribute to the monster movies Burton grew up on (and this was before his career grew a little too long on charming tributes to the monster movies he grew up on). The new one — call it Frankenweenie 2.0 — pretty much tells the whole story of the earlier version, with some padding that gets a little tiresome but does produce more monsters. Young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) obsesses over monster movies to the point of making his own, starring his beloved dog Sparky. One day, Sparky chases the wrong ball at the wrong time, and Victor loses his movie star and best friend. But not for long: Inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau), Victor brings Sparky back to life on a dark and stormy night.

There are a couple of sad moments for dog lovers, especially those who have dug their share of tiny graves. But overall this is a comedy; Sparky doesn’t come back as a monster — he comes back as the same Sparky, except that his tail or his ear occasionally falls off (“I can fix that” is Victor’s refrain), and he needs to be “topped up” with a jolt of electricity every so often. I have to say I prefer the original version, not only because it felt fresher at the start of Burton’s career, but because it was shorter and didn’t succumb to subplots. Here, we get complications when other kids in Victor’s class find out about Sparky, and they want to learn Victor’s secret so they can win the school’s science fair. We don’t really care if they succeed or fail; it’s just a distraction from what should be the main event, in which the townspeople, horrified, corner Sparky at a windmill, just like old times.

The windmill in the original short was a small windmill at a mini-golf course. Here it’s a real windmill, and Victor has to run up endless stairs to save his neighbor Elsa (Winona Ryder) from a hybrid cat/bat as the windmill burns down around them. It reminded me of the entirely unnecessary fight at the end of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, which felt as if Burton had internalized all the studio notes he got on Batman. You gotta have a bang-up finish, kiddo! But the tiny windmill in the original had so much more charm; you knew Burton didn’t have the budget to build and burn down a big windmill, so he improvised. In stop motion, you can do anything (and let’s have a round of applause for Trey Thomas, the animation director here), and some of the additions are inspired — I enjoyed the re-animated turtle who becomes a sort of non-flying Gamera — but some of it nudges our ribs a little too hard. Hey, remember Gremlins? How about Jurassic Park?

I suppose we should be thankful there isn’t a dancing number (no numbers at all, actually, except for some simpy end-credits song sung by Karen O). As long as it stays with the friendship of Victor and Sparky, Frankenweenie is fine. The look and tone are — say it with me now — a Charming Tribute to the Monster Movies Tim Burton Grew Up On, same as Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow and many others. The thing is, Disney should’ve had more faith in this premise back in 1984, when it mattered, instead of shocking it back to a bigger life now, after we’ve seen Burton return to this cobwebbed well again and again and again. It’s been said before, but Burton is almost ready for his own amusement park — Burtonworld, home of dozens of lovable misfits, land of sportively macabre imagery. Frankenweenie passes 87 minutes nicely, but apparently the 54-year-old Burton doesn’t have much more to say with this story than the 26-year-old Burton did. That’s a little dispiriting.

Total Recall (2012)

August 4, 2012

The most entertaining moment in Total Recall, the latest needless remake, is the screen logo of the film’s production company, Original Film. Ah, irony. We went down this am-I-really-me rabbit hole 22 years ago, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a futuristic construction worker who doesn’t remember his past as a secret agent. Crudely but vigorously directed by Paul Verhoeven, the movie had its goofball charms, including cartoonishly fun effects by Rob Bottin and a literally eye-popping trip to Mars. The new Total Recall doesn’t go to Mars, and there’s no cartoonish fun (aside from an obligatory rehash of the prior film’s three-breasted prostitute). It’s a grim actioner, full of deep-bass noise and flashing lights and gunfire and bloodless PG-13 violence.

Few would argue that Colin Farrell is not a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as Douglas Quaid, a bored worker who visits the memory-implant outfit Rekall to take a mental espionage vacation and finds himself embroiled in the real thing, Farrell doesn’t get to do anything he does best, which is to be quick and profane and sly and sexual. I don’t think he laughs once in the movie or even smiles much (except ruefully at the featureless drudge that is Quaid’s life); it’s a real waste of a vibrant performer. There’s no time for levity here anyway, hardly even time to breathe before the movie lumbers into its next endless and expensive action set-piece. There is a nice bit when Quaid, who earlier commented idly that he wished he’d learned to play piano, sits down at the ivories at his secret-agent apartment and starts tickling them expertly. It just leads to yet another info-dump (this is who you are and this is what you must do), but it’s a pleasant respite while it lasts.

Vaguely following the 1990 film’s blueprint, Total Recall tries to keep us guessing whether Quaid, in his past life, was an agent working for the repressive government or an agent who threw in with the resistance. Either way doesn’t seem like much of a party: if Quaid was a government man, he was working for Bryan Cranston (a long way from Breaking Bad, in his “I’d better do as many crappy movies as I can while the iron’s still hot” mode, last seen in Rock of Ages); if he was a rebel, he was reporting to Bill Nighy, doing his usual dour turn in his third film for director Len Wiseman (after two Underworld movies). I find, with some surprise, that I have somehow seen all four of Wiseman’s films (including Live Free or Die Hard), and I wonder if four films over a nine-year career is enough evidence to declare a director essentially worthless. Wiseman makes mildly pretty films, full of blues and grays and lens flares, but they’re the definition of bland. Certainly they never risk camp or bad taste, as Verhoeven triumphantly did.

As in the original, Quaid escapes from the government agent he thought was his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and joins up with a resistance fighter (Jessica Biel) he has tucked away in his subconscious. I had heard encouraging things about a take-no-prisoners fight between Beckinsale and Biel, but it takes place in an elevator and Wiseman, who’s hopeless when slow motion or big special effects aren’t involved, loses track of the action. The elevators themselves are interesting, whooshing vertically and horizontally, but they’re part of a massive yet impersonal production design whose best elements are cribbed shamelessly from Blade Runner. There’s even a shot where Quaid leans against his balcony and looks out on his ruined city, just like a similar shot with Harrison Ford in the 1982 classic, except this time the camera does a 180-degree spin, which wasn’t possible in 1982. The point seems not to be Quaid’s ruminations on his surroundings but rather “Look what we can do with computer effects now!”

Both versions of Total Recall are based loosely on a story by the late sci-fi mystic Philip K. Dick (as was Blade Runner). The man cooked up mind-twisting ideas that seem unfilmable without a lot of visual garlic sprinkled on. Every few years someone tries to put Philip Dick on the screen, but the paranoid questions at the heart of his work get smothered by state-of-the-art technology; even A Scanner Darkly was literally coated by rotoscope animation. At least the first Total Recall used its premise for absurdist jollies; it was a loopy chunk of Saturday-night escapism, and it looks better than it did in 1990, compared to the passionless, glum-faced adventures we get now. The new Total Recall seems fanatically dedicated to the chase scene, the shootout, the big bang, and forgets entirely about the who-am-I query at its core. Verhoeven sealed his movie with a certain ambiguity — was the whole movie just Schwarzenegger experiencing a false memory from Rekall? — but there’s no ambiguity here. I never thought I’d say that a Schwarzenegger flick was more provocative and subversive than a film made 22 years later, but here we are.

Silent House

March 11, 2012

Editing, said Stanley Kubrick, is what truly sets cinema apart. The medium borrows from other art forms — photography, music, theater — but cutting from this image to that image, imposing order on time and space, belongs to movies (and TV). So it’s not surprising that only a handful of feature-length “single-take” films — with no visible editing — have ever been made. Hitchcock’s Rope is probably the most famous example, but even there Hitch cheated, using clever camera moves to camouflage his edits. There haven’t been many such experiments since, though one of them was 2010’s La Casa Muda, a Uruguayan horror film, and another is its new American remake, Silent House.

Elizabeth Olsen is Sarah, who accompanies her dad (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to their dilapidated lake house. It needs a lot of fixing up; the power’s shut off, the phones are out, and it may as well have a sign on the front lawn reading “Ideal Setting for an Inexpensive Horror Film.” The uncle gets annoyed with Sarah’s dad and takes off for a while. Sarah hears noises upstairs. Her dad goes to investigate; something happens to him. There appears to be someone in the house stalking Sarah. The movie is shot using only available light, too, so half the time we sit in the dark listening to Sarah’s tortured breathing and crying.

This is the third collaboration of husband-and-wife writer-director team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who divided horror fans in 2004 with Open Water. Many considered that minimalist shark-fest dull and repetitive, but I admired its sense of futility in the face of uncaring nature. Silent House isn’t nearly as absorbing. The underlit milieu occasionally produces unsettling, suggestive imagery, but the technique took me out of the movie — I was always looking for “invisible edits,” the points at which the camera pans across something dark, giving the filmmakers a chance to cut. We’re meant to be stuck right there with Sarah in her uncomprehending terror, but it just feels like a gimmick; in practice, it might as well be yet another found-footage movie.

It all leads up to an absurd twist ending that, like the one in High Tension, raises many inconvenient questions. The horror seems to shift from physical to supernatural, and then to psychological. Maybe it played better when they did it in Uruguay, but the plot contortions feel like a cheat. Without spoiling things, let’s say that Elizabeth Olsen, a good actress who sustains Sarah’s panic, is not quite physically plausible as having done the things we’re to assume Sarah has done. Silent House tries to go a long way — “88 minutes of real fear captured in real time,” claim the ads — on mood and suggestion, which is noble, I guess, but I wish it worked. And, again, the film is the new Exhibit A to prove why there aren’t many single-take films. Editing, as Kubrick knew, can do anything; it can evoke joy, sorrow, fear. Hitchcock pulled his experiment off (though people forget Rope did have one visible cut for effect), and then never did it again. It’s ironic, since I usually berate filmmakers for being too edit-happy, but purposely doing without the tool that makes cinema cinema calls attention to itself more than the most rapid-fire cutting does.

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.

Arthur (2011)

April 10, 2011

To those who hold up the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy Arthur as if it were a snifter of fine brandy, I have to ask: Have you seen it lately? It hasn’t aged well; aside from John Gielgud’s deservedly Oscar-winning exercise in dry wit, which remains evergreen, it’s a dreary throwback to fizzier ’30s comedies of manners, with Moore falling about and cackling tirelessly, Liza Minnelli in that stage of her career when there could only be the thinnest pretense that she was playing anyone other than Liza Minnelli, and that ghastly Christopher Cross theme song, also (far less deservedly) Oscar-winning. What may have been refreshingly retro thirty years ago is now doubly musty.

Which is not to make any bold claims for the new Arthur, with the lanky, amiably decadent Russell Brand in for Moore and the mock-forbidding Helen Mirren in for Gielgud. The idea of Mirren as the new Hobson, the disdainful but covertly loving valet of the tippling heir Arthur (Brand), looks good on paper. But Mirren, delivering some of the same dialogue Gielgud did, can’t really compete. (Sometimes the dialogue can’t compete, either: Mirren’s “Wash your winkie” versus Gielgud’s towering delivery of “Perhaps you would like me to come in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit.”) And without any wildness or complexity to reveal, Mirren seems stranded. Two other actresses come off better. In the Minnelli role of the free-spirited woman Arthur loves but isn’t supposed to, here substantially rewritten, Greta Gerwig actually is as enchanting as Minnelli’s character was supposed to be. And Jennifer Garner, as the woman Arthur is meant to marry but doesn’t love, creates a soulless businesswoman who doesn’t really love Arthur either but wants the old-money cred of his name.

The premise is archetypal: Arthur must marry this horrid woman or he’ll lose his inheritance (here upgraded to $950 million from the original’s $750 million). But we don’t want to see him disregard his fortune any more than he wants to do it. The point of both films is that Arthur the coddled man-child in his kingdom of playthings must grow up enough to be willing to give it all up for true love. I hate to say it, but Russell Brand enacted a similar bad-boy-reforms arc last year in Get Him to the Greek, and he was funnier there; that comedy, for all its sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, was the real 21st-century Arthur (as well as an unofficial remake of My Favorite Year, of course). And it had better songs; this one gives us a soundtrack of twee romantic ditties, including a Fitz & the Tantrums end-credits cover of “Arthur’s Theme,” which, like the rest of the film, is a less annoying remake but no great shakes either.

During those end credits we see Arthur and his love depicted as if in a storybook. It looks a little like the illustrations Eric Chase Anderson does for the Criterion DVD editions of his brother Wes’ films, and that made me imagine a Wes Anderson remake of Arthur. It would be exponentially drier, perhaps with Owen Wilson as Arthur and Bill Murray as his valet (or perhaps his chauffeur, a role here that wastes the comedic gifts of Luis Guzman). When a movie has ended and you’re left thinking about an alternate version of it, that movie is probably in trouble. Otherwise, Arthur peddles the comforting fiction — especially offensive these days — that love trumps money, without quite acknowledging that life is more easily negotiable for people with money but no love than for those with love but no money. As Keith Richards put it when deriding the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”: “Yeah, try payin’ the bills with it.”

True Grit (2010)

December 19, 2010

John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, but he had that American-eagle presence that stood him in good stead until the ’60s, when the eagle’s feathers began to molt. In 1969, with America’s indignity approaching its peak, Wayne made True Grit and played a fat, one-eyed drunk who could still get it together to be noble. The denuded eagle had been restored, at least temporarily. Cut to 2010: the eagle has not soared for quite some time, and politicians on both sides are plucking its feathers one by one. The time may indeed be right for another True Grit, another fat one-eyed drunk showing us that redemption is hard but not impossible. And this time, there’s a real actor involved.

Jeff Bridges steps into the muddy boots of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (sharp newcomer Hailie Steinfeld) to chase down the no-account thief who killed her father. Cogburn normally can’t be bothered to make his speech intelligible — most of it is disgruntled mumbling — but Bridges, a precise actor even when playing layabouts like Cogburn or the Dude, lets us hear the sentences that matter. Cogburn drinks all day and drags himself painfully out of sleep in the morning, but he snaps into cold proficiency when he has to.

True Grit has been adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen to hew closer to the tone of Charles Portis’ well-loved novel, which is told from the viewpoint of Mattie Ross. The baroquely formal language has been preserved, as has the rather eligiac epilogue: this time it’s Mattie who rides off into the sunset, not Cogburn. The obvious comparison is to the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (that film’s desperate protagonist, Josh Brolin, here gets to play a slyly tongue-in-cheek Anton Chigurh figure), but I think it would make a better double feature with the Coens’ Fargo. In both, a plain-spoken female, innocent of sin but unafraid in the face of evil, pursues her quarry across grim expanses of snow. They’re both essentially comedies of persistence, weighed to the earth a little by the heaviness of violence.

The original True Grit got an M rating in 1969 (the equivalent of today’s PG-13), and the new version pushes the PG-13 envelope with chopped-off fingers, an assailant shot off his horse and pitching bloodily head-first into a big rock, and a nicely tense sequence involving a pit full of rattlesnakes. Still, the Coens have aimed for a holiday-season entertainment here, wrought with their usual fastidious style. (If cinematographer Roger Deakins, heretofore stupidly overlooked by the Academy for past gorgeous work, doesn’t win the Oscar next February for his work here, I’m sure I won’t be alone in throwing something at the TV.)

Why did the typically sardonic Coens want to make this film? A glance at the Portis novel yields a simple answer: Why wouldn’t they? It offers terrific set pieces, a great ear for dialogue, and an outsize hero, a sodden eagle burping on his horse and failing to shoot cornbread in air but firing true when it counts. It’s clear from such farces as Burn After Reading that the Coens don’t really believe in American exceptionalism. But perhaps they would like to. In the wide panoramic compositions of the filmmaking, the eagle soars again.


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