Monthly Archives: August 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Review)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is something of a mixed bag that focuses too much on the creatures and is somewhat scary and tense, but not nearly as much as the hype built it up to be.

Guillermo del Toro’s horror remake Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has kind of an interesting story behind it.  When making the film, producer del Toro and director Troy Nixey had the intention of releasing the film as a PG-13 horror flick.  When they submitted it the the MPAA, the film was returned to them branded with the R rating.  Del Toro asked the MPAA what cuts he could make to the film to make it PG-13, and the MPAA basically told him that there was no need to ruin a perfectly scary movie with cuts.  So, the movie was released rated R.  Hype stories like this can be a lot of fun, as they build anticipation for the movie, and in this case, prompt curiosity into what exactly could be so scary about this movie that was made with minimal gore and no swearing.  Unfortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, while entertaining, doesn’t deliver on what the early rumors said, and fails to live up to the high bar set by the hype machine.

The movie loosely follows the plot of the 1970s television movie, that being a couple (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) moving into an old mansion and being terrorized by the demonic little creatures that live there.  This remake puts a praiseworthy spin on the original plot by adding a little girl, Sally (Bailee Madison) to the mix.  It fits with Guillermo del Toro’s favorite theme, of children in turmoil.  Sally is depressed and overmedicated, and upset that she has simply been handed over to her father and his girlfriend, who seek to renovate the old Blackwood mansion and get their failing business back on its feet.  You’d think that old mansions that people disappeared from centuries ago (as established in a chilling prologue) would not seem attractive to live in, but apparently no one in the movie read the Book of Horror Cliches.  Sally starts hearing whispering and scratching, and even glimpses the horrible beasts that live under the house and feed on children’s teeth.  Naturally, none of the adults believe her, until all hell seriously breaks loose and everyone starts to realize that something is horribly wrong with the house.

The scariest thing about a good “haunted house” horror film is, to me, not knowing what exactly you’re supposed to be afraid of.  By that token, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark commits the cardinal sin of the genre: it shows us these creatures way too often.  We get an extremely brief glimpse of the creatures in the prologue, and they are revealed in full about 45 minutes into the film.  It seems too early for them to make their appearance; the tension isn’t given enough time to ramp up, and the rest of the film after that reveal is watching the creatures sneak around and try to take Sally while the adults don’t believe her terrified accounts of seeing and hearing the monsters.  Eventually, the formula gets a little tired, and it’s hard not to wish that the film had balanced itself a little bit better by waiting an extra twenty minutes or so before showing the demons.

That’s still not to say that the movie is without tension; there’s a decent amount of it, even if it sometimes fails.  There’s still a pretty nasty sense of unease throughout most of the film, especially when the cruelty of these beasts is made obvious.  One thing that it does right is slowly ramp up the tension until the last fifteen or so minutes, when it hits a crescendo of chaos and all hell breaks loose once everyone knows the truth about the creatures and the creatures give up on trying to be sneaky.  This last act was, to my surprise, extremely exciting.  It might not be anything new for a horror soundtrack to go for the “5 guys going to town on some violins” sound, but it’s still as effective as it ever was for the climax, and the main theme has a neat 60’s horror vibe.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is not a bad film by any means; in fact, it’s quite good, and is decently tense even if it does sometimes either miss the mark, seem a teensy bit silly, or slip into tired horror cliches.  It looks nice, sounds great, and is nicely acted all around.  It’s a well-made chiller with some pretty muscular scares, but it’s still hard not to be just a little disappointed when it doesn’t turn out to be the heart-stopping horror masterpiece it was obviously meant to be.

Score: *** (out of 5)

Rated: R for violence and terror

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Fright Night (Review)

The Fright Night remake surprisingly turns out to be a complete blast, and the fact that the movie is so aware of how much fun it is only adds to the hugely entertaining campiness.

The remake is a funny thing.  Sometimes, it just seems right to introduce an older film to a new audience.  At the same time, there is a high risk of damaging the sanctity of the original film.  They’ve had a relatively poor track record as well; even while Peter Jackson’s King Kong and the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit turned out to be massively entertaining and fresh takes on the classics, they were a couple of bright spots in the ocean of abysmal filmmaking that included such duds as Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the Psycho that starred Vince Vaughn that nobody saw, and the alarmingly bad Steve Martin version of The Pink Panther.  It seemed odd to remake the 1985 campy classic Fright Night out of nowhere, and even more odd to cast Colin Farrell as the vampire antagonist. I was even completely oblivious to the 2011 revival until I saw the poster at my local cinema.  On a whim, I decided to give Fright Night the benefit of a doubt.

Fright Night focuses on a teenager named Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his single mother (Toni Collette) living in their suburban household in Nevada.  Charley is relatively happy in his high school life with his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), despite occasionally clashing with his nerdy former best friend “Evil” Ed Thompson (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  There are also increasing numbers of students missing from Charley’s class.  One day, Ed pulls Charley aside and shares with Charley his suspicion that Charley’s new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire.  Disgusted, Charley rejects Ed’s suggestion, because, as he points out to his estranged buddy, Jerry “is a terrible name for a vampire”.  It’s only after Ed disappears and Jerry starts exhibiting some suspicious behavior that Charley sneaks into Jerry’s house and discovers the truth that his neighbor is a vampire, and takes it upon himself to try to prove it.  To do so, he enlists the help of local illusionist and self-proclaimed vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant).

Director Craig Gillespie seemed familiar to me when I watched the credits to the film, so a quick visit to IMDB was in order.  One of his first films?  The outstanding and touching Ryan Gosling romance Lars and the Real Girl.  That explains, then, why the acting in Fright Night is surprisingly and pleasantly great.  Anton Yelchin really isn’t given much to do beyond looking intense and/or scared at various points in the film, but he seems to have a gift for playing off other actors, and his scenes with Farrell have a nice, healthy sense of energy, even when neither of them are moving.  As in Horrible Bosses earlier this year (which I loved), Farrell is having a ball playing another villain, and his performance has a sort of slimy, seductive quality to it; he’s an evil, evil vampire, but he commands the screen with a delightful menace that feels effortless and tense all at once: he’s a lot of fun to watch.  On the other hand, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who everyone knows as McLovin from Superbad, plays his role with all the subtlety of, well, Christopher Mintz-Plasse.  That’s a good thing, as Ed’s eventual appearance as a freshly turned vampire feels natural considering how the formerly bullied character now wields remarkable power and relishes it completely.  It’s one of my favorite sequences in the movie and while I wasn’t sold on Mintz-Plasse way back in Superbad, his roles in Role Models, Kick-Ass and this are quickly turning him into one of my favorite young actors to watch.  David Tennant–yes, that David Tennant from Doctor Who–gives a performance that seems like a marriage between Russel Brand and Criss Angel, and the result is some of the funniest bits of the film coming straight from him.

Fright Night is a campy, silly ride, and is well aware of it.  It’s this conscious sense of fun that makes the movie so great, as well as the meticulous attention to giving it a distinct 80s flavor.  Even beyond the actors, the visual style and pacing of the film make if feel very old-school, and there is a palpable feeling that the makers of the film are in on the joke and winking at the audience. It’s not a particularly scary film, but it has some of those thrills and chills that prompt a smile instead of a sense of dread. It’s a great formula and I was delighted all the way through.

If there’s one thing Fright Night has going against it, it’s the CGI.  As noted before, considerable care and attention is given to crafting the movie in the cinematic style of older horror films like the original Fright Night, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.  However, this care occasionally clashes with the sheen of a 2011 movie.  That is to say, sometimes the special effects stick out, and that’s not a pun on the 3D.  It just looks too expensive sometimes and it’s distracting for a movie that is supposed to have the look and feel of an old-school film.  The effects aren’t all bad all the time, but some of them aren’t entirely polished and that makes them even more noticeable.  It seems like there could have practical effects used in some areas where the filmmakers went with CGI instead.  It’s a fairly minor complaint, and the overall effect on the entertainment value of the movie is negligible at the most, but it’s still notable all the same.

At the end of the day, Fright Night is simply a blast.  It doesn’t have a great deal of emotional weight and there is little that will set it apart as one of the best movies of the year, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that had me smiling as much as I was during Fright Night.  A script with almost perfect comedic timing could be the magic element, or perhaps the cast that seems like they probably would have turned and winked at the audience had the cameras been rolling just a few seconds longer.  Despite the occasionally unnecessary-feeling CGI, it’s a very solid update on the classic movie and delivers great thrills and plenty of belly laughs.  Definitely not a film that should be missed, even by the remake skeptics.  It’s just a great time at the movies.

Score: **** (out of 5)

Rated: R for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references.

Don’t Tell Me Everything: Do Trailers Show Too Much?

Warning: Given the subject matter at hand,  there are a handful of major spoilers discussed in this piece. 

Marketing a film through its trailer is a remarkable feat.  Creating the trailer for a film can come down to a consideration between what would constitute too many spoilers versus how much should be shown to pique the interest of the moviegoing audience.  It’s unfortunately becoming a trend that most trailers constitute the former.  It seems now that most movie trailers simply give away not only most or all of the plot, but the vast majority of movie’s best parts or scenes that would best be saved for the element of surprise in the final product.

The main problem here, obviously, is that when a trailer gives away some major twist or big money shot, the audience knows it’s coming.  I remember being quite suspicious at the trailer for the terrible Will Smith superhero movie Hancock.  In the trailer there is a very brief shot of Charlize Theron dressed in black, surrounded by destruction.  It didn’t take me long to guess far ahead of time that Theron’s character was also superpowered.  Similarly, in The Forgotten, the missing-person thriller with Julianne Moore, the big “reveal” is that aliens are experimenting to see if they can get humans to completely forget about a person.  This would have been a fine twist, had the trailer not glaringly ended with someone getting sucked violently straight up into the sky.  There was also Terminator Salvation, which wasted no time revealing in the trailer that Marcus Wright was a Terminator.  Some choice edits could have completely removed this major twist.  These kinds of trailers ruin all intrigue of the film, and instead of trying to figure out what’s hiding behind the curtain, the audience is instead already behind said curtain, and when it opens, it doesn’t even matter.  The trailer for Cast Away is a slightly less guilty offender; though showing Chuck escaping from the island might seem like an egregious reveal, the actual movie is more about Chuck as a character and how the whole ordeal, as well as reintegrating into society, affects him.

It’s almost worse when a major shot is revealed, such as the final scene in Paranormal Activity.  The film ends with the female getting possessed and killing her boyfriend.  Granted, it’s not known that this is the ending scene of the film, but the trailer makes it clear that it’s going to be major.  In another horror film, Quarantine, the final shot of the film is not only in the trailer, but also used for the poster and the DVD cover art.  Again, it’s not given away that this is the final shot of the film, but including it in the promotional materials as such not only kills the intended visceral effect of the shot when it finally arrives, but has the audience waiting for the shot the entire film.  One of the most infamous offenders comes from the trailer for the 70s science fiction film Soylent Green, which spends a lot of time asking, “What is the secret of Soylent Green??”.  As it turns out, the secret is that human bodies are being processed into the food product Soylent Green.  It’s a big twist, but a very prominent scene in the trailer is of bodies being loaded onto a conveyor belt.  One cannot reasonably infer the secret from this scene alone, but when watching the film, it becomes much easier to guess the ending and the resulting revelation loses much of its kick.

With some trailers, “spoilers” are needed to sell the movie.  I initially took a small amount of offense to the newest international trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The trailer was literally a truncated version of the entire narrative arc, starting with Caesar the ape being born, going through his eventual growth and the rift between him and his family, and leading up to the rise of the apes and their violent takeover of Earth.  Of course, this is how the film would have to end.  There’s no way a film called Rise of the Planet of the Apes could end in any way other than, well, the apes rising.  Though the trailer gave away several of the money shots from the eventual siege, it’s those money shots that sell the film, and tasting the spectacle of those apes taking over the world enticed audiences to propel the film to #1 at the box office two weeks in a row and counting.  In the same way, slasher horror flicks such as the Final Destination series or the Saw series that rely on their kills as a selling point need to feature some of those in the trailer, or there would be no meat to the trailer.  If the trailer is edited well enough, this can be ok; if your movie is Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, the whole movie is ruined by the trailer.

This trickiness can also be applied to comedies, which also need to supply enough jokes to be able to carry the trailer and make it enticing to viewers who are interested in seeing it.  Most comedy trailers, unfortunately, feel the need to put every joke in the trailer, and most of them are ruined when the movie actually rolls around.  Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell comedies that rely heavily on improvisation and/or long-winded gags don’t generally have this problem, whereas one can usually derive the approximate comedic value of an Adam Sandler movie (usually 0 or less) just from viewing the trailer.  Other times, it’s all in the context.  For example, both of director James Gunn’s pseudo-comedies Slither and Super feature well-constructed trailers that don’t give away too much, but what they do show is significantly enriched in the finished product.  On the other hand, the editing of The Change-Up‘s trailer made it literally funnier than the actual movie.

This is less of an issue when it comes to trailers for drama films that do not have any major spoilers, or are based on factual events that the audience is aware of before attending the movie.  Take, for example, the remarkably well put-together trailer for David Fincher’s The Social Network. It is generally common knowledge that the inception of Facebook ended in lawsuits and fractured friendships.  It’s not a movie with plot twists and breathlessly guessing what is going to happen next; it’s a character-driven drama that is anchored on its outstanding performances.  The scene when besties Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin have their falling-out is even there in the trailer, and benefits the emotion in the trailer as a whole.  Trailers for drama films or films based in fact are usually the best: they succinctly deliver the plot, with some choice lines and performance excerpts, and whet the audience’s appetite for the film without showing everything.

This problem can also work in the opposite direction.  For example, the recent Love and Other Drugs, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, sports a trailer that pitches a charming, lighthearted romantic comedy with a little bit of silliness from the supporting characters.  The movie itself was about a Viagra salesman who is dating a girl with Parkinson’s disease and is convinced that she will soon die. It’s a far cry from the pleasant trailer, which touches only briefly on that major plot point.  On the other hand, how do you market a romantic comedy film where one of the main characters is dying?  At least the trailer doesn’t have scenes that aren’t even in the film; it’s one thing to have a comedy that includes some nixed lines, such as some of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” lines from Knocked Up.  It’s another thing entirely in the case of the Navy film Annapolis, which is marketed as a powerful Navy recruitment thriller. There’s even a few shots in the trailer of a ship blowing up and helicopters and jets doing tricks in the sky.  Annapolis the movie was about boxing, and it was terrible.  Another incorrectly marketed film was The American (granted, it was an outstanding movie and one of my favorite films of last year), which was pitched as a sort of action movie but was actually more of a psychological drama.  This led to a great many disappointed viewers.

It all goes back to the original problem, however: the trailer is meant to sell tickets, and how can it do that effectively without giving too much away?  It’s not easy, but it can be done; the trailer for Inception held just enough intrigue and exposition to build hype while also giving viewers a lot to question so they weren’t quite sure what to expect in the final film. In the same way, Watchmen was a trailer designed for fans of the graphic novel.  People who didn’t know anything about the story could guess that the movie was a dark alternate reality with vigilantes, while fans of Alan Moore’s original work were watching the novel spring to life and could get appropriately excited.  If only such craftmanship was more common in movie trailers.  As it is right now, it’s getting easier and easier to know the entire movie based on a mere two and a half minutes of footage, with the only solution being to completely avoid the trailer altogether.  But is it worth it?

The Change-Up (Review)

The Change-Up is disgusting, mean-spirited, boring, unfunny, and colossally disappointing. 

The “body-swap” pseudo-genre of cinema is usually a clever and entertaining genre of film to watch.  Much of the genre’s charm comes from watching two actors try to emulate each other, such as Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off, or Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris in Freaky Friday.  The allure of seeing Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds become each other sounded too good to be true.  As it turns out, it was; The  Change-Up doesn’t nail that comedic art, but it does, in its first five minutes, feature two sets of genitalia, a baby banging its head against its crib, and a man getting feces sprayed into his eyes and into his mouth.  If that sounds funny, stop reading now and go see The Change-Up.

The poor sap at the opening to the movie is David, played by Jason Bateman.  David has worked hard all his life to be where he is today, as a high-level lawyer at a law firm.  Dave is a workaholic, and he and his wife may have more problems than he realizes. Dave’s longtime buddy is Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) a pothead and slacker who does nothing all day in a suspiciously nice-looking apartment (this is never explained).  On a guy’s night out, Dave and Mitch stumble drunkenly out of a bar, discussing each others’ lives.  As they begin to urinate into a fountain, they simultaneously wish out loud that they had each other’s life. Of course, they wake up the next morning with the wish fulfilled.  Mitch suddenly realizes that he has to assume more responsibility than he has ever had in his life, and Dave has to fulfill Mitch’s busy schedule of sexual deviance and starring in pornographic films.

The Change-Up‘s main comedic crutch is a boatload of extremely nasty humor.  Countless jokes involving genitalia, feces, race, and sex, disgusting nudity, an exhausting amount of profanity, and a surprising mean streak punctuate nearly every minute of the script.  An aggressive amount of mean and vulgar humor can, sometimes, be funny, but in The Change-Up it feels extremely forced and tasteless.  When the movie finally attempts to go for some emotion (which is in itself fleeting), it barely registers because the film has already spent ninety minutes pounding its audience into submission with its shocking humor.  It’s a poor substitute for actual comedy, and while it was sometimes funny, for the most part it was met with a silent theater (save for the loud family near the top).

I think what is the most disappointing about this movie is that none of the actors here are normally bad at what they do.  Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds are two of my favorite actors, and their chemistry really shows here.  Leslie Mann has the gift of making almost any movie instantly better, and the astonishingly beautiful Olivia Wilde brightens any scene she is in. All four of these actors are immensely capable of delivering believable performances, and are clearly trying their hardest here to do so, but the writing and directing does them no favors and they have very little to work with.  It rarely feels like Bateman and Reynolds seem to be in each other’s bodies; it feels more like Bateman trying to be as vulgar as he can, and Reynolds being slightly less so.  The actors don’t do a very good job of trying to emulate each other, and it never felt “natural” (if you can call this sort of movie “natural”).

The plot even misses the point when it comes to the big resolution and emotional ending.  Generally in a body-swap movie, the two main characters eventually learn how to better live their respective lives.  One would hope that Dave would stop focusing so much on his job and focus more on his failing marriage and lonely family.  He kind of does, but it also never really feels complete since it’s something he was aware of even before the switch.  Mitch, on the other hand, would need to stop being such a slacker and sexual deviant, and get some more ambition and less marijuana in his wife.  All it seems that he does is find out that he is a “quitter”…and that’s it. Even when they are in each other’s bodies, Mitch (as Dave) starts to work hard while Dave’s wife becomes even more distraught, and Dave (as Mitch) has a blast doing whatever he wants.  The character arcs never feel complete and the movie feels half-baked as a result.

The Change-Up seemed like a great formula for a winning comedy: the writers of The Hangover, combined with the director of Wedding Crashers, and with the acting talents of Bateman, Reynolds, Mann and Wilde thrown in as well could have been perfect.  Instead, the writers chose to take the low road and fill their script not with clever, entertaining humor, but with brutalizing, disgusting gags merely for shock value.  The attempts at emotion are rather halfhearted except until the very end, when it was a nice reprieve.  Unfortunately, those last ten minutes do very little to redeem the rest of the film.  At best, The Change-Up is a somewhat funny, mildly charming comedy.  At worst, it is a colossal misfire and a travesty of a comedy film that wastes all of the talent involved.

Score: * (out of 5)

Rated: R for pervasive strong crude sexual content and language, some graphic nudity and drug use.