Archive for August 28, 2011

Well, first off, I suppose we’d better get one thing straight here — Guillermo Del Toro’s name is all over this thing, but he didn’t actually direct it. No, that job fell to newcomer Troy Nixey, who seems capable enough, but whose name is buried under all the Del Toro-hype here. Not that our guy Guillermo was an absentee-air-quote executive producer here or anything — he co-produced it and co-wrote the screenplay (along with Matthew Robbins), but this isn’t some “unique Del Toro vision of horror” or whatever it’s being billed as. That’s because not only was it directed by someone else, the whole thing’s actually a remake to start with, of a rather well-regarded 1973 made-for-TV movie. Do Del Toro had his fair share of involvement, to be sure, but he’s not really the “brains behind the operation,” so to speak — he’s the guy whose name is being prominently displayed in order to get horror fans’ butts into the seats.

And apparently even that sales strategy isn’t working so well, as Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark opened to both middling reviews and middling box office (not to worry on that score — with a budget of “only” $12.5 million it’s almost sure to turn at least a modest profit once, as industry insiders say, “home viewing platforms” are figured into the mix). None of which is to say that’s it’s in any way a bad flick in and of itself — it’s not. It’s just not great, either.

Oh, Nixey does a nice job with the near-Lovecraftian atmospherics and what have you. Old, abandoned, haunted mansion in New England (actually the movie was filmed in Australia, but you’d never know it, so convincing is the illusion) and all that. Impish little demons who live deep beneath the house whisper through the grates at night and only our intrepid pre-teen heroine, Sally (Bailee Madison, who turns in a very nice job but who’s cursed with the most cloyingly pseudo-“precious” name any parents could foist upon a child), who’s been shipped off from LA by a mother doesn’t want her around to live with an architect/massive-project home remodeler dad , Alex(Guy Pearce) who hardly knows her and is trying to find a way to fit her into his new life with his project assistant/girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes, who still hasn’t learned to stop talking out of the side of her mouth) is a solid enough little set-up as far as these things go.

The problem is, it never goes a whole lot further than that. You can fairly well tell right from the start what the fate of most of the characters here is going to be (obligatory handyman and housekeeper included), and even though there are some hair-raising moments here and there along the way as the imps/fairies/whatever-the-fucks make their presence increasingly felt, there’s not one single plot twist to genuinely throw you off your mark or even really keep you on your toes. Most of the “danger” element just comes from the fact that it’s a child who’s put into these harrowing situations rather than an adult, because creatures of this size just aren’t gonna work that well coming after an adult after all, and of course this leads to the whole moral debate of how right it is to even depict a kid in these circumstances in the first place. I think we’ve settle, albeit unofficially, on a societal standard that says it’s okay to put a kid in danger in a movie here and there, but making a child the subject of all the horror and danger in a film, particularly an R-rated film that isn’t supposed to be “connecting” with an audience of kids, might just be pushing things a bit too far.

That seems fair enough to me, and while I’m not morally outraged by anything young Sally is subjected to here, I can understand easily enough why many folks would find the whole exercise to be in pretty poor taste. That being said, as I mentioned previously, the horror elements in this film only really work at all because it’s a kid in danger, since, ankle-high imps threatening an adult would be just plain absurd. So where does that leave us in terms of the whole “is it right to show kids being terrorized in a movie” argument? Probably no further along than where we were before this film.

Which isn’t a bad summation of things vis a vis horror fans in general. After the critical adulation heaped upon Pan’s Labyrinth and, to a lesser extent, the Hellboy films, the name Guillermo Del Toro has become synonymous with imaginative, visually spectacular horror films that push the genre envelope in terms of both form and content and it’s obvious that the studio (in this case, Miramax) hopes splashing his name across this film unapologetically will lead knowledgeable horror fans to conclude that this must be a film that delivers the same kind of wallop, figuratively speaking, and the fact of the matter is that it just plain doesn’t. It’s certainly competent enough in more or less every respect, and again, young Ms. Madison acquits herself most wholeheartedly in the title role and I wish her the very best in the future. But the whole thing feels like a rote technical exercise that delivers all the goods, at least on paper, but lacks the soul of a true revelatory, visionary horror (or, for that matter, any sort of) film. there’s nothing here to complain about (apart from the moral argument touched upon earlier), but there’s nothing to particularly single out for praise, either (superb lead performance notwithstanding).

So there you have it in a nutshell — Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is hardly a waste of your time or even anything close to it, but it’s nothing new, nothing profound, and nothing exceptional, despite Miramax’s best efforts to lure you into the theater under the pretense that it is. On a rainy miserable day (or evening), it makes for a nice enough distraction, but there’s nothing happening on screen here that will leave anything like a lasting, indelible impression, and it’s almost all head and no heart. It might even scare you once or twice, but 30 minutes after it’s over you won’t remember why.

I am, however, sufficiently curious at this point to track down and see the original. So I guess that’s something.

I suppose it was inevitable, really. With the vampire craze in full swing thanks to TV shows like True Blood  and The Vampire Diaries, and with the damn-near-ubiquitous-at-this-point Twilight franchise ruling at the box office and still sitting somewhere near the top of the fiction bestseller lists, it was probably only a matter of time before the creatively-stagnant-powers-that-be in Hollywood turned their attention to a remake of one of the quirkiest, most downright fun vampire movies ever made, namely writer-director (and eventual Child’s Play creator) Todd Holland’s 1985 mini-masterpiece Fright Night.

Here’s the thing, though — any “reimagining” of Holland’s film was doomed to be subpar in comparison to its progenitor almost from the word go because a big part of the original Fright Night‘s charm is that it’s such a product of its time. It’s unpretentiously, unapologetically 80s all the way, not because it was trying to be or anything, but just because, hell, that’s when it was made and they didn’t have much budget to reach for anything greater than they were capable of. It’s from that brief-but-glorious time when Hollywood decided to try to blend equal parts teen horror and teen comedy and see what it could come up with — if there was money to be made halfway between Friday The 13th  and Porky’s, if you will.

The answer, ultimately, was “some, but not enough to keep it going,” but in both the sort and the long runs the fusion-formula gamble paid off , and continues to pay off, for us genre fans with classics like Holland’s film and Fred Decker’s superb Night Of The Creeps.

That, however, was then, and this, needless to say,  is now. And what has the now brought us?

Well, something of a “close-but-no-cigar,” I’m afraid.

Director Craig Gillespie (best known for the indie-hit Lars And The Real Girl) really does seem to have his heart in the right place here, and some of the “modernizing” touches, such as setting the story in a typically barren suburban Las Vegas cul-de-sac, work quite well (Vegas has a transient population and it’s not entirely out of place to see a house with blacked-out windows because so many people work night and need to sleep when it’s light out) — and some of the casting choices are damn-near brilliant, to be honest. Colin Farrell as vampire-next-door Jerry is out-of-this-world menacingly cool and oozes dangerous charisma throughout. When he’s hanging out just on the other side of the doorway of our ertswhile teen hero Charley (Anton Yelchin)’s house because he hasn’t been invited in, the tension’s palpable as he quite clearly is trying to ingratiate himself to the point where Charley tells him “hey, man, come on in” but is also trying to suss out whether our intrepid adolescent has figured out who and what he really is. It’s a highlight-reel moment in a (no shit here people) Oscar-worthy performance from Farrell.

And on the supporting actor front — recasting Roddy MacDowall’s legendary Peter Vincent character as a Criss Angel Mindfreak-type Vegas performer rather than a washed-up TV horror host is another stroke of pure genius, as was casting Doctor Who  alum David Tennant in the role. Essentially he’s just playing the Tenth Doctor with a substance abuse problem (and, it’s strongly hinted, the sexual dysfunction issues that often go along with that), but it works and it’s a hell of a lot fun.

It’s in the rest of the casting, though, that the big cracks in this flick begin to show. First off, Anton Yelchin is just a straight-up bore as Charley, and nowhere near as interesting, or even mildly sympathetic, as a lead needs to be. He just never gives you much of any reason to give a shit whether or not he, and by extension through him everyone he loves, gets killed. So that’s a bit of a bummer. He’s not even so much actively bad as he is just crushingly bland. And the same can be aid for his supposedly too-hot-for-him, entirely-out-of-his-league girlfriend, Amy, played by Imogen Poots (today’s winner of the “celebrity-names-that-are-too-fucking-clever-by-half award, runner-up being Miranda July), who (sorry to be superficial, but) isn’t all that outrageously hot and more importantly isn’t all that good an actress. And finally, we’ve got Toni Collette slumming is as Charley’s mom (quite an international cast here, by the way — Collette’s Australian, Yelchin’s Russian, Tennant and Poots are British, and Farrell’s Irish), who’s serviceable enough, but this role is too blase for an actress of consequence like her to be messing with.

And lastly on the poor casting and performances front, and this one really hurts — Christopher Mintz-Plasee, McLovin himself, absolutely sucks as the 2001 version of Evil Ed. Granted, the script absolutely wrecks the character from the outset, turning a likable geek from the original into an asshole geek in this one, but even still, Mintz-Plasse is so unconvincing as a prick-ish nerd, and even more unconvincing one’s he’s “turned” by Jerry, that even a better-written character wouldn’t have stood a chance.

The other big flaw with this film is the script itself. the pacing just seems off from the start and when the film’s earlier attempts at blending some comedy into the mix, as the original did so effortlessly, are abandoned, we end up with a flick that takes itself way too seriously when at the outset it seemed like it wanted to plant its tongue firmly in its cheek. The massive, cop-out, deus ex machina-type plot device that resolves everything at the conclusion is impossibly lame, too, and probably made David Tennant feel right at home because it’s just the sort of mega-big, but mega-cheap-and-obvious ending that Russell T. Davies used to wrap up every season of Doctor Who with.

All that being said, there’s slightly more good than bad here on the whole, especially if you see it in 3-D (and yes, this was actually shot in 3-D rather than having it added in post-production, so there are some really cool, old-school 3-D style moments), and hey, you even get a cameo by the original Jerry himself, Chris Sarandon, so all is not lost by any means. But it sure comes close. Gillespie and crew seem to either lose sight of, or change their minds about, exactly what type of film they’re making here at right about the halfway mark, and make the rather perplexing choice to bury the fun under the grim way past the point where they ever had much chance of actually scaring us very much,  and the result is a movie that tries to be more than it has any business being, and consequently, and ironically, ends up being so much less. in short, it’s tough to go for pure thrills, chills, and gore when you start off letting us know we needn’t take anything here too seriously. Either stick with trying to blend horror and comedy from start to finish, as the original did so successfully, or just go with one or the other. And hey, if you ‘re absolutely determined to convince us that suddenly,out of nowhere, this now-dark-and-humorless world has consequences, don’t insult our intelligence by telegraphing an obviously consequence-free ending  (remember that deus ex machina I mentioned a second ago?) while there’s still a good half hour left to go.

Don’t get me wrong — as remakes go, this could have been a lot worse (most are), but to see a movie that really does seem to get where it’s coming and have an equally solid idea of where it’s going suddenly become so thoroughly and completely lost thanks to some ill-advised, and out-of-the-blue, tonal shifts just when it seemed to be in a position to really hit its stride is a real head-scratcher. Gillespie just about had a film here that you could happily compare to its predecessor, as with Let Me In/Let the Right One In (just for the sake of a recent comparison in the vampire genre), but the whole thing really loses it focus, and its heart, when it decides to ditch the fun and start taking itself seriously for no discernible reason whatsoever.  Some of the actors, most notably Farrell, who’s just plain dynamite here, really deserve better than to have their self-assured, supremely confident work lost inside a movie that  can’t quite decide what it wants to be.

As far as summer blockbusters go, this film probably represents the tail end of Hollywood’s output for 2011 (late August tends to be post-blockbuster season and sees the beginning of the fall horror-movie-release craze), and what do you know, they really did save the best for last.

I suppose more superlatives are hardly in order at this point for Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a film that breathes a limitless amount of new life into a franchise that audiences and critics alike had given up fro dead after Tim Burton’s crack at it in 2001. But here’s where irony comes into play — while Burton’s film is remembered at this point as more or less and absolute bust, it was actually pretty decently-received by folks at the time, and made an absolute boatload of money. Creatively, though, it felt like something of a dead-end — more a tribute to a once-great series than a springboard for its future. And so, while this latest revamp/rethink probably won’t make anywhere near the money of the 2001 flick (and its budget was somewhat smaller as well), it does in fact provide plenty in terms of a “where do we go from here?” factor, and its more-than-respectable performance at the box office pretty much ensure that there will, in fact, be a “fom here” for us to “go” to, if you catch my drift.

As far as prequels/re-imaginings go, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have hit on something of a genius idea to form the core of this one — rather than set things in the far-flung, postapocalyptic future, we’re looking at the present day here, and it’s man’s hubris, desperation, and greed that provide the springboard for the rise of intelligent apes rather than nuclear annihilation. Biochemist Will Rodman (James Franco) just wants to create a drug that will cure Alzheimer’s so he can help his father who is struggling with the disease (John Lithgow) get his life back. Ruthless big pharma tycoon Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) just wants to make a boatload of money. Will’s lady-love, Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto) just ants to see that the ape, Caesar, that they’ve injected with Will’s new brain-boosting serum is cared for. And once Caesar gets an understanding of what he’s capable of, and how rotten us human are, he just wants some other apes to get smart like him so he can have some company and they can find some sort of way to fit into the world.

It’ll all end in a massive ape attack on San Francisco, of course, but really revenge isn’t even on Caesar’s radar screen until he and his fellow apes are tortured and abused at the hands of John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sons at the sadistic “animal shelter” they run. And even as he readies his newly-intelligent ape army for conquest, Caesar maintains an amazing degree of love for Will, whose relationship with his super-ape is at the core of this film.

And speaking of Caesar — well, the combination of actor Andy Serkis (of Lord Of The Rings fame) and the WETA digital effects team are the real star of the show here, aren’t they? Once again, as he did when bringing Smeagol to life in Peter Jackson’s epic, it’s Serkis’ expressive face that’s called upon to do all the heavy lifting here, while the WETA folks extrapolate his cranial emoting onto the digital template that becomes the most “realistic” digital ape in movie history. I’m not sure what category you’d put his performance here into, but if Hollywood can figure out a way to nominate Zoe Saldana for her work as a digital stand-in on Avatar for an Oscar, they should do the same for Serkis here. Caesar will by turns capture and break the heart of even the most confirmed cynic (like yours truly). Granted, all the actors here turn in solid performances (Lithgow in particular deserves special recognition for his work), this movie really is Caesar’s story all the way, and its success completely hinges on Serkis and WTA. to say they deliver in spades is an understatement of the highest order of magnitude.

My last piece of admittedly-effusive praise goes once again to the screenwriters — it’s not until the very end that they deliver their most solid punch as far as genius-premise-work goes, when they reveal that the very same drug that gives the apes intelligence spreads a plague that wipes out most of humanity. So while the lingering question for folks familiar with the original film series throughout is one of “okay, it”s obvious enough how the apes are gonna get smart here, but how do we get pushed out of the way?,” the answer turns out to be right there in front of us all along. Clever as shit stuff that is, my friends.

People are calling Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes  “the thinking person’s blockbuster” for good reason. This is intelligent, morally challenging, highly imaginative, wonderfully-executed storytelling. It’s affecting, involving, entertaining, and thought-provoking stuff that engages the mind and the heart, and it’s the best thing to come out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine in at least a decade. If you’ve seen it already, go see it again, and if you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for?

Just when you — and, yes, I — think movie magic is probably well and truly dead and buried, along comes a flick like this to prove it’s still there, just forced into unwanted hibernation by Hollywood’s insistence on gutless lowest-common-denominator-appealing crap at all costs. If anything, let’s hope the lesson the studios learn from the success of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is that they can stop selling the intelligence of their collective audience short and deliver us some truly remarkable product and still make a ton of money in the process. We’re talking with our dollars, and the message that this movie’s success is delivering is loud and clear — now we’ll just have to sit back and wait to see if Hollywood is listening.

I have to say, critically-speaking at least, this has been quite the summer for Marvel, hasn’t it? Granted, none of their 2011 summer releases has enjoyed the kind of spectacular box-office success that flicks in the Spider-Man and Iron Man series have, and even X-Men : First Class has underperformed a bit compared to previous incarnations/installments in that franchise’s run, but between that, Thor, and the subject of our review today, veteran Hollywood blockbuster director Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, it’s fair to say that properties from the so-called “House of Ideas” have become absolute critics’ darlings.

And hell, why not? The fact is that as far as mass-marketed mega-budget studio marketing tools go, these films have all been pretty damn good. Sure, they’re still more about selling toys and hyping the next big thing to come from Stan Lee’s commercial empire (in this case, as with Thor, the object that pre-publicity-hype being 2012’s forthcoming The Avengers)  than they are about the actual movies themselves per se, but damn if they haven’t all featured a lot better characterization, acting, plotting, and what have you than most massively-ballyhooed, massively-distributed, massively-seen, and massively-budgeted Hollywood fare.

Okay, fair enough, in this case more than most the film is almost pure set-up for the sequel-and-spin-off machine, and from start to finish the whole thing feels more like a prequel for an actual movie that hasn’t happened yet than a self-contained story designed to stand or fall on its own merits, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t do just that anyway. The giveaway comes in right at the start when the remains of Cap’s doomed flight are found in the Antarctic in the present day, but once we shift back in time to World War II and get into the story proper, it’s eminently gripping and satisfying from start to finish even if you never do quite escape the feeling that it’s two hours of pure backstory.

The strongest element has to be the superb performance of Chris Evans in the title role — with an honorable mention going to the CGI effects team. For the first third or so of the film, as we meet Steve Rogers in his early incarnation of heart-of-gold super-wimp, Evans’ typical-Hollywood steroid-enhanced-looking-frame is digitally manipulated to appear thin and lanky, and while the effect is impressive enough in and of itself, it’s Evans’ performance that really sells it, and when he gets injected with Tony Stark’s dad’s super-goo to become the Nazi menace’s worst living nightmare, the subtle changes Evans uses to convey the fact that he’s still the same good-natured kid, albeit one now almost trapped in a body he doesn’t fully comprehend, are astounding. It’s easily the best acting job ever turned in by a leading man in a superhero flick.

Beyond that, everyone else is solid, too. As Cap’s arch-nemesis The Red Skull, Hugo Weaving is coolly menacing when he needs to be, outright unhinged when it’s called for, and a righteously callous bastard throughout.  Tommy Lee Jones is right at home in a military-hard-ass role he was born to play, and he seems to be soaking up most of the acting accolades from the media for his turn here. What the hell, it’s been a long career and he’s earned it. And Hayley Atwell, besides being drop-dead gorgeous, is convincingly endearing as our guy Steve’s love interest, Peggy Carter. You really believe she’d take a shine to this guy even if he’d stayed a a scrawny wuss forever.

Johnston keeps the film moving at a pace that heightens one’s interest throughout without resorting to being a breakneck thriller, and there’s certainly no harm in that — more Hollywood directors could take a cue from this and learn that there’s much to be gained from keeping a person in their seat at all times rather than on the edge of it  from the word go. The pacing here is pretty much pitch-perfect and the screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is so exceptionally loyal in tone, if not exactly in content (although it’s plenty close there for a modern audience), to the Joe Simon-Jack Kirby comics of the 1940s that it’s sure to please even the most die-hard “Golden Age” purist.

And I think that’s the secret to Captain America : The First Avenger‘s success more than anything else, truth be told. As was the case with Thor, the folks behind the camera have finally figured out that while Stan Lee gave us the hype and the melodrama, it’s Jack Kirby’s vision and boundless creativity that was actually the heart and soul of these marvel characters in their earliest, and best, incarnations. It took Hollywood a long time, but they’ve finally figured out who the real genius at Marvel was, and by faithfully translating “The Kings”‘s vision to the silver screen, Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston have delivered a couple of the best superhero movies ever made.

I realize this review is pretty late in coming and that most folks who have any interest in this flick have probably already seen it, but on the off chance that you’re one of the few who’s intrigued by this and hasn’t made it out to the theater yet, do yourself a favor and check it out while you still can. You’ll be mightily impressed at best, pleasantly surprised at worst.