Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)


Director: Samuel Bayer
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz, Connie Britton, Clancy Brown
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

On the horror remake offensiveness scale, A Nightmare on Elm Street would probably fall somewhere in the middle, ranking below A Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Psycho but slightly above Friday the 13th in terms of how many fans a reboot will upset. While the 1984 original was an entertaining, well-made 80's slasher with an unusually original premise for its time, it wasn't scary and with each progressing sequel Freddy Krueger, much like Jason, became less an icon and more a parody. That seems to be reoccurring problem in the horror genre as these franchises continue long past their expiration date, losing all creative steam while the studios beat a dead horse trying to wring every last cent out of them. Saw is the latest victim, and though its seventh installment is being touted as the last, you can bet it'll eventually be back in some form or another. These movies always come back, and that's not necessarily such a bad thing since many love them with a passion so in that sense reviving a long-dormant franchise like Nightmare isn't the worst idea there is. Sure, it's a shameless cash grab, but at least there's a need for creative resuscitation here, unlike the recent remake of that same year's The Karate Kid, which raped a classic story solely for profit. Hardcore horror fans may feel the same way about this but they should at least be grateful the kids aren't pre-teens, it's rated "R," and there's a concerted effort to return the series to its darker, more serious roots. Unfortunately, for all the arguments you can come up with for this remake being somehow defensible, the filmmakers have gone out their way to make it FEEL as pointless and disposable as possible. The same problems that have plagued all the other Platinum Dunes-produced horror remakes like Chainsaw, Friday The 13th, The Amityville Horror and The Hitcher are again on display to a lesser extent, but this does have three big things going for it: A great concept and two very talented actors. The results are decidedly mixed, but better than expected. In the end though, it still doesn't work mainly because these horror remakes are all starting to feel and look the same, adding nothing to what was already there and ineffectively re-executing everything that was done well enough the first time around.

Much of the original story remains intact (save for a few changes) which is a good thing because this is one of the rare slashers powered by a concept so strong that even the 1984 film and its inferior sequels couldn't fully capitalize on it. In a small American suburb, high schoolers Nancy (Rooney Mara), Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Jess (Thomas Dekker), Kris (Katie Cassidy) and Dean (Kellan Lutz) are all having nightmarish visions featuring a severely burned man in a red and green striped sweater and a glove equipped with sharp knives. He attacks only in their dreams and if he kills them there, they die in real life. The key is to stay awake (whether that be with the aid of stimulants or just sheer force of will) so that doesn't happen but Freddy slices through the teens until only Nancy and Quentin are left to discover the truth of everyone's shared past with this man and attempt to defeat him for good. One of the more positive changes the updated script provides is the introduction of the idea of "micro-naps" in which the potential victims fall asleep for 10 or 15 minutes, making it even harder for them (and us as the viewer) to distinguish between what's real or not, which ups the suspense level considerably. There isn't anyone who hasn't dozed off for a few brief minutes or felt so tired that they haven't a clue where they are making so it's a clever twist on a familiar idea.

Giving us as much back story on school caretaker and accused child molester Fred Krueger as possible (even going so far as to come up with with an origin story for his sweater) isn't necessarily a bad idea in theory since he isn't one of those horror villains where the more you know or see of him, the less scary he becomes. He simply isn't scary at all to begin with so no harm done there. But you do have to question the logic of showing and spelling out information what was subtly, but effectively implied in the original films. This can't either but it makes little sense attempting to recreate key scenes, moments and plot points from the original, only with cutting edge computer generated effects. Re-tracing the original film's steps beat for beat but with higher production value is a silly idea that only helps make this feel like the latest inferior sequel in the franchise. This is a problem similar to the one marring the final act of Rob Zombie's 2007 Halloween remake, in which he attempted to faithfully reconstruct and jam John Carpenter's original film into the last third of his, but with more overt brutality. It's almost as if all these filmmakers want to have their cake and eat it too by teasing a new direction only to fall back on recreating scenes from the original (in some cases rather poorly) as some kind of misguided tribute or an attempt to throw a bone at hardcore fans. Last year, Zombie rebounded strongly with the gutsy, unrelenting Halloween II when he strayed as far as possible from the source material, finally breaking free from the genre conventions holding these remakes back. That's a template this could have followed in place of the typical sequel/reboot mish-mash route that was chosen instead. It's also interchangeable with a lot of other recent horror remakes with its slick music video style approach to the material, which diminishes the sense of dread and urgency in favor of making everything look dirty, but high budget dirty.  In other words, it's too polished. Maybe not coincidentally, this was directed by Samuel Bayer, who's first ever directing gig was Nirvana's classic 1991 "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. Say what you want about Zombie's efforts but at least he captured the visual feel of trashy, low budget midnight drive-in movies.

The biggest hurdle cleared is the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger, who steps into the role made famous by Robert Englund after online fans pushed to have him cast. They were right on target, and as much as this will upset loyalists, he's no worse at it than his predecessor. Not necessarily better mind you, but different in a way that's appropriate for the liberties taken with the source material. Whether that more realistic approach (facially looking very much like an actual burn victim) is the right one considering this is supposed to be a horror/fantasy character may be up for debate, but Haley's the right guy for the job considering Freddy is supposed to be more frightening than entertaining. His small stature is a minor issue (he's nowhere near the physical presence Englund was) and there aren't as many clever one-liners for him to deliver, but that's not what's really called for here anyway. Unfortunately the character he's given isn't all that interesting and the flashback backstory, despite playing to all of his strengths as an actor, isn't really developed enough since doing that would mean the writers would have to stray from the predictable horror rules suffocating the picture.

My (and seemingly everyone else's) new favorite actress of the moment, Rooney Mara, gives us a Nancy that's a far cry from Heather Langenkamp's appropriately superficial incarnation over 25 years ago. Sullen, morose, and shy, she's the most withdrawn female protagonist we've seen in a horror movie in some time and pensively looks and acts like she's suffered some great tragedy, maybe one outside of what's actually happening in this story. And whatever that tragedy is I can practically guarantee you it would have made for a better movie than we got here. As an actress, Mara has this interesting look and expression to her face that's inscrutably intelligent, making you think she knows something you don't and if you stare long enough you might be able to figure out what. It was evident in just her few sensational, Oscar-worthy scenes in The Social Network and it's only a little bit of a surprise that the quiet intensity that made her performance there so memorable carry over into this. It's unlikely any studio decision makers completely knew at the time of her casting just how much they got or what would happen with her career so it's unfortunate that she's contractually locked (as is Haley) into appearing in a sequel should it occur. And judging from the final scene, it's a safe bet it will. That this doesn't seem like the worst news in the world for her (at least no worse than Robert Downey Jr. spending the rest of his career in Iron Man purgatory) is a credit to how much she brings to a project that doesn't deserve her talents. Until she takes over the film, Katie Cassidy does a surprisingly credible job early on with a one-note scream queen character and Kyle Gallner seems right at home as the weirdo, emo co-lead opposite Mara. Friday Night Lights' Connie Britton and gifted character actor Clancy Brown are wasted in the obligatory adult roles, as is too often the case in these types of films.

Sadly, the acting all-around is actually better than the original and it doesn't seem to help one bit since no one could decide whether they wanted to make a slasher with cheesy acting faithful to the original or an updated version that takes itself seriously. The result ends up being a fake cheesy slasher taking itself too seriously and I'm wondering if removing some of the goofier horror elements and playing it as a straight psychological drama would have been wiser. With a premise this strong and the acting clearly there to support it, a gripping story could have been constructed centering on dreams and reality as these teens come to grips with a buried childhood tragedy. NOES 2010 feels like it should have ambition beyond just covering the original and if a more realistic approach was the game plan they should have had the guts to go all the way with it since there was real potential to do something interesting here. This near-miss exposes the biggest problem with remakes in that there's always a cause to worry that studios will continue to casually resurrect a beloved title or franchise without seriously considering how.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

MacGruber

Director: Jorma Taccone
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer, Maya Rudolph
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Ever watch a comedy you just know is stupid (and I mean insanely stupid) but find yourself laughing uncontrollably through every minute of it anyway, possibly against your better judgment? Such is the case of my viewing of MacGruber, which could barely hold its own as a comedic premise for 90 seconds as a Saturday Night Live skit, yet somehow, someway works better as a 90-minute feature film. It's unlikely the audience who will get the most laughs out of this have even heard of the '80's action television drama MacGyver and that hardly makes a difference because this isn't really a spoof of that (Richard Dean Anderson surprisingly doesn't even appear). The skits on SNL are and it would be hard to sustain a full length feature comedy spoofing a retro cult show built around one joke. Luckily, this has many jokes, most of which are vulgar disgusting gross-outs that almost always hit their mark. Many will hate this with a passion and find it humorless, which is understandable because what anyone finds funny is so specific to that viewer. Basically, if you liked Hot Rod you'll like this, and if you didn't, then you'll hate it. That makes perfect sense since the same uncredited writer on that film (SNL writer Jorma Taccone) directed this one and it features the same dry but perverse sense of humor. If nothing else, everyone can maybe at least agree on one thing: Val Kilmer is the man.

If not for the hilarious opening credit theme song it would be difficult to tell within first few minutes that this is a comedy because the unusually detailed (at least for type of a film) plot is presented so straight it could easily be mistaken for an actual episode of MacGyver.  Believed to be dead but really retired special ops agent MacGruber (Will Forte) is called back into action by his boss, Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe) when it's discovered his arch-nemesis Dieter Von Cunth (Kilmer) has recently gained possession of a nuclear warhead. The two have a bitter history revolving around MacGruber's deceased girlfriend Casey (Maya Rudolph), depicted in some pretty memorable flashback sequences. To thwart Cunth's plan and stop him from obtaining the pass codes needed to launch the rocket, he assembles a crack team of WWE wrestlers who he accidentally kills with his own supply of C-4 explosives. This ends up being a blessing in disguise since it spares us from seeing these guys attempt to act past a single scene or two and sets up a couple of good jokes later about the ridiculous circumstances surrounding their deaths.  In their place he recruits longtime friend Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and more reluctantly stoic newbie Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), and leads them into battle against Cunth with a variety of silly strategies that make sense to only him.

The laughs don't fully pick up steam until St. Elmo and Piper are officially added to the team, at which point the script goes on a hot streak of clever jokes and sight gags that don't subside for over an hour straight. Most center around MacGruber's delusional strategy for successfully executing the mission, which includes proudly letting Cunth know he's actually alive, sending St. Elmo into a death trap disguised as himself and using Dixon as a human shield. Just about the only commonality the plot shares with its TV influence is MacGruber's penchant for executing escape plans with common household items since he doesn't carry a gun, though I doubt MacGyver would have ever come up with a use for a celery stick that's as creative or disgusting, not that he'd want to. Phillipe somehow finds a way to keep a straight face through this entire thing while Wiig, the only actress not named Tina Fey or Anna Faris who's legitimately funny, plays St. Elmo with the perfect mix of gullibility and cluelessness.

But with his dry, droll line delivery and deadpan reactions to MacGruber's schemes, it's Val Kilmer who owns the movie, which shouldn't surprise anyone, but will anyway, since no actor has done more and gotten less credit than he has throughout his legendary career. Whether he's American rock idol Nick Rivers in the cult comedy Top Secret!, punching out Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun (if it's okay with him I'd like to retroactively insert the phrase, "And THAT'S for Katie" after he lands the blow), playing Madmartigan in the '80's fantasy classic Willow, embodying Jim Morrison in The Doors, Doc Holiday in Tombstone, surviving Batman Forever, more than holding his own with Pacino and DeNiro in Heat, trying to outcrazy Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau, taking on the role of Simon Templar in The Saint, believably playing a blind man in At First Sight, a tattooed meth addict in The Salton Sea, porn star and alleged murderer John Holmes in Wonderland, protecting the President's daughter in Spartan or playing a gay private investigator opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Kilmer has never phoned anything in and even this silly role is no exception. Just his presence as the heavy (in more ways than one) is hilarious enough, but as usual he doesn't stop there. Many actors probably would have just cluelessly hammed it up, but not the brilliant Kilmer, who approaches this dead seriously as if he were really a dangerous mercenary in a hardcore action thriller. Because of him, everything Forte does as MacGruber (and he has this goofy character down pat) becomes that much funnier.  This wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining with anyone else as the villain, as the hilarious climactic showdown proves. Here's hoping he soon gets a part (not this) that launches a Mickey Rourke-like comeback because no one's more overdue for respect. He'll be unfairly mocked and criticized for taking this but no one can say he didn't go all out like he always does.

Having seen the unrated cut, not the R rated theatrical one, I couldn't tell you exactly how much further this version goes but it really paid off for them to go as far as possible because nothing would have hurt the film more than holding back on the vulgar humor. Also, bonus points for the very appropriate '80's soft rock soundtrack featuring Toto and Mr. Mister, as well as the year's best graveyard ghost sex scene. Maybe it's faint praise to call this one of the stronger SNL big screen adaptations when it's competition includes Superstar, Stuart Saves His Family, A Night at the Roxbury, The Ladies' Man and It's Pat (which I still say had POTENTIAL as a movie idea), so we'll just call it Lorne Michaels' best effort since Wayne's World, even if it's dumb but clever humor more closely resembles Airplane! MacGruber is the rare TV-to-film spoof that wears out its welcome in smaller doses but benefits from a larger platform for its stupidity to run wild.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Frozen



Director: Adam Green
Starring: Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers, Ed Ackerman, Rileah Vanderbilt, Kane Hodder
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark infested waters. A publicist trapped in a phone booth, pinned down by a sniper's rifle. A contractor buried alive inside a coffin. A mountain climber trapped under a boulder for 127 hours. Now we can add to that list three snowboarders trapped on a ski lift overnight in Frozen, the single location thriller inexplicably marketed as a horror movie. But whatever genre this belongs in, it still nonetheless represents some of my favorite types of films: Survival stories of ordinary people trapped in extraordinary situations. They often take place within a very condensed time frame, containing an almost palpable sense of urgency and suspense as people are forced to dig deep inside themselves as they stare death in the face. These films can work magic when executed well, but they're not without their drawbacks, such as the extra strain it puts on the writing, as much of the action (or sometimes lack of it) is confined to one location. With only one or two actors on screen at a time, few special effects utilized and an audience clamoring for a satisfying resolution, any problems with the script or performances are magnified ten-fold. It's also one of the few types of films where anything less than a perfect ending can ruin the entire experience, making the viewer wonder why they wasted their time in the first place. But writer/director Adam Green proves to be up to the challenge and while it's the simplest, stripped down story there is, it's also the hardest to tell cinematically. When something like this works, it really works, and there's no doubt that this one works.

Time is well spent in the early going getting to know the participants since their personalities will heavily inform the tragic and often frighteningly realistic events that follow, as well as our perception of them. Childhood friends Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore), along with Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell) are spending a Sunday afternoon snowboarding before the ski resort shuts down for the week and they head back to school. After bribing the ski lift attendant earlier in the day, they again convince him to let them go for another ride that evening just before closing, with the resort nearly deserted. A communication breakdown causes another attendant to shut the lift down, unaware they're still on it. With a snow storm rapidly approaching, hungry wolves gathering below and the very real possibility they'll all die unless someone jumps, it becomes clear some really important decisions have to be made, and quickly, if they want to survive.

Nothing could ruin your enjoyment of this film more than picking apart every detail and complaining about perceived implausibilities in the characters' actions. It's inevitable dumb decisions must be made on their part and the ski resort's for the story to entertain at even the most basic level. Is it far-fetched that lift attendants would do something this stupid, and no safeguards would have been put in place by the resort to prevent it? Absolutely. But it's not completely impossible and the script has to be cut some slack in that regard otherwise we'd be watching a blank screen. Of course it isn't the wisest move to fall asleep with your bare hand gripping the metal safety bar in sub-zero temperatures, but I'll at least be grateful she saw A Christmas Story and wasn't dumb enough to use her tongue. What look like reasonable ways out of a situation like this on paper don't always go according to plan because sometimes judgment can falter under extreme stress, which this film reflected well. The events are presented are realistically as they can be in this context, while still allowing enough wiggle room for creative liberties to be taken.

This film is really about the three central characters and if they're not likable and interesting, then all is lost. In horror terms it would be easy to classify them as the frat boy, the hottie and the wisecracking best friend, and even though this isn't exactly a horror movie, those descriptions still hold. But that's fine because within that framework there's still plenty of room to create interesting characterizations and the actors do, especially Shawn Ashmore, who's had experience dealing with similar material before in 2008's The Ruins. He's even better here as "the third wheel" in best friend Dan's mismatched relationship with Parker and as the dire situation progresses he reveals himself to be a lot more than we first thought, while Dan reveals himself to be considerably less. What's most interesting about Ashmore's performance is how he hints that Joe's third wheel designation predated the ski trip and this event may not have been the toughest challenge he's had to overcome, and was maybe needed for him to finally step up. But the movie mostly belongs to newcomer Emma Bell, who isn't there to merely look pretty then die, but has a lot of small moments where she fleshes Parker out as a character, gradually breaking down her walls and permitting us to root for her. The dialogue in these survival scenes feel like the types of conversations people would really have if stuck in this predicament and potentially facing their final hours. Everyone will have their own idea how this story should end but it concludes the only logical way it can, even if all I kept thinking about was the massive civil lawsuit this ski resort will face.

Green previously directed the cult slasher Hatchet (unseen by me) a couple of years ago so that could account for the genre mislabeling of this, because other than a couple of gruesome scenes, much of the torture is psychological. It's cinematography and score suggest a first-rate thriller, not the D-level schlock I expected judging from the awful trailers that preceded the film. Or maybe this is a "horror" movie, but our perception of the word has devolved so much that it's difficult to recognize a genuine entry in the genre anymore. We should be so lucky if Frozen really was, because it would represent the best kind, one that urges us to put ourselves in the position of the protagonists and wonder what choices we'd make to survive.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (The Complete Fourth Season)


Writer/Producer: James Manos, Jr. 
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, James Remar, Julie Benz, John Lithgow, Keith Carradine, Courtney Ford
Original Air Date: 2009

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

What a comeback this is. After Dexter's mediocre third season in which the writers seemed to hit a brick wall and nothing much of interest occurred, they've come out this time with guns blazing, as the best show currently on television has now officially aired its strongest season yet. In terms of pure edge-of-your-seat drama it's unmatched and what's so surprising is that it comes just as you'd think the well of ideas would start to run dry for its intriguing premise. Some of the little (and they were only little) nagging issues that plagued the show through the course of its run are completely eliminated by inventive writing and performances that are firing on all cylinders. While it doesn't feel as meticulously plotted as seasons 1 and 2, that works to its advantage since a break from the familiar structure was definitely called for. We were due for some surprises and got them. Going in I heard a lot about John Lithgow's guest starring turn that justifiably won him an Emmy, but nothing could have prepared me for just how astonishing he is here. It's tempting to give him full credit for this season's success (and don't get me wrong he's a HUGE part of it) but doing that undermines the writers and other actors who  all greatly contributed to these 12 game changing episodes.

It would be inaccurate to say the fourth season picks up where the third left off since nothing really happened in the third. There's no fallout to speak of and what's interesting about this season is how it fleshes out so brilliantly an idea that was only brushed upon then relegated to buddy comedy fodder in the last one. The idea of someone entering the picture that forces Miami Metro blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) to really examine the practicality of continuing his secret life as a serial killer of murderers in spite of how the lying has so hugely effected his relationship with wife Rita (Julie Benz). Now with a new baby boy, Dexter is tempted more than ever to finally rid himself of "The Dark Passenger" he's been carrying inside since he and his little brother witnessed their mother's death as children. Continuing on like this is risky not only for himself, but his family, who he selfishly continues to endanger at the expense of his addiction. The return of now retired FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy (Season 2 guest star Keith Carradine) sets in motion a chain of events that forces Dexter to make that choice between his two lives. Lundy is back in Miami hunting the previously unidentified "Trinity Killer," AKA Arthur Mitchell (Lithgow) a serial murderer who's been killing in patterns of threes for 30 years in an effort to cleanse himself of a childhood trauma similar to Dexter's. Unlike Jimmy Smits' Miguel Prado, who infiltrated Dex's world last season, Arthur is no joke but a serious and dangerous threat who's every bit his match, even more ritualistic and is capable of completely destroying him. And very much unlike last season when we knew exactly how everything would end, there are twists and turns, as well as legitimate doubt whether Dexter will even be able to get this monster on his table by the finale.

Upon hearing the long underrated Lithgow was cast for this season I knew there was little chance it would turn out to be anything but an enormous success given his track record. A veteran stage and screen actor widely known for his comic skills (racking up a handful of Emmys on 3rd Rock From The Sun), he's rarely been given the right opportunity to display how equally effective he can be in dramatic roles.  In a terrifying turn that alternates between massive mood swings, he's essentially balancing two separate personalities. One is church-going family man Arthur Mitchell, who spends his free time building houses for a Habitat for Humanity type projects across the country and cringes at the sight of a hurt animal. The other is the "Trinity Killer," a sadistic monster so mentally ill and unstable that's he's actually convinced he's murdering innocent people for the greater good. Just juggling these polar opposite personas would be tricky enough for any performer but Lithgow effectively merges them and the scenes where he physically and emotionally terrorizes his own family are so harshly realistic it's difficult to watch. Your heart's in your throat knowing he really could pass for that friendly guy you chatted up at church last week, or worse yet, your neighbor.

The quest to put Trinity down for good becomes personal for Dexter on a number of levels, but with it comes the horrifying realization that Arthur's future could be his if he continues down his current path. Hallucinations and flashbacks of his deceased father Harry (James Remar) and reminders of his "code" have been prevalent throughout the series' run but this is the most mileage they've got out of it yet as it practically feels like he's on the case with his son, guiding his conscience. Once again viewers are put in an uncomfortable spot, having to ask themselves whether Dexter really is any better than the scum he's killing, even though he clearly wants to be and we want him to be. It bares mentioning every season how incredible Michael C. Hall is in the title role but sometimes he can be so convincing I annoyingly catch myself wishing Rita would just stop nagging Dexter and let the poor guy lead his life. That is until I remember he's out every night.... murdering people! To an extent, I can actually sympathize with television watch groups complaining that the show condones vigilantism and violence, but fortunately that doesn't make the writing on the show or Hall's work any less brilliant. Disturbingly, it only confirms the show has done its job and it should be up to the viewer to sort out what's right and wrong.

Unlike Dexter's silly "bromance" with Prado last season, his friendship with Arthur is practically a suicide mission and it was a relief to see the Miami Metro police department portrayed as competent law officials that Dexter again must stay a step ahead of to cover his tracks. As Deb, Jennifer Carpenter delivers her best acting work yet in the series, conveying a mix of toughness and vulnerability as she's forced to recover from another jarring personal tragedy. Carradine's stay as Lundy is shorter this time around but maybe more important as the character continues to make an impact long after he's left. Given their track record last season, I cringed when the writers appeared to be embarking on a romantic sub-plot involving LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and Batista (David Zayas) but it's surprisingly well handled and isn't treated as the throwaway storyline I expected it to be. Detective Joey Quinn (Desmond Harrington, now a regular) not only sparks a feud with Dexter but begins a relationship with investigative reporter Christine Hill (guest star Courtney Ford) that doesn't go where we expect at all. At first, Ford's role doesn't seem like much to start but as it evolves into something a lot more complex and challenging, she steps up and delivers in a big way. Of everyone, her multi-dimensional performance is most at risk of being unjustly overlooked amidst the deserved hype of Lithgow's, and it's almost impossible to believe that before landing this gig Ford was actually about to quit acting. It's a good thing she didn't, as she shouldn't have any problems finding work now.

As strong as the series' first two seasons were, the only problem was that their story arcs concluded about an episode too early and things were always tied up a little too neatly right before the finales. Here, you're feeling the tension and suspense right up until the unforgettable closing image. Though the shocking conclusion to this season was spoiled for me beforehand, the best news is that there actually is a shocking conclusion and a real cliffhanger that forces you to tune in for Season 5.  I won't say this development was long overdue but it was due and I'm glad they did it because it changes everything. Suddenly, a whole new set of possibilities have opened up for the series. In many ways this season of Dexter brings the show full circle, ending almost exactly as its premiere began, and what happens next is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)


Director: Harald Zwart
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Zhenwei Wang, Yu Rongguang, Wen Wen Han
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: PG

★★ (out of ★★★★)

I get it. Movie studios need to make money. For the most part, I'm unusually open when it comes to remakes and have even applauded attempts to reboot or revitalize previously stale franchises like Halloween. I even thought the idea of a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho sounded interesting, at least until viewing it. Some films I'd consider among my favorites wouldn't necessarily be terrible candidates for remakes and if announced I'd probably be curious how they'd turn out. But we all have THAT LIST in our heads of remakes that would infuriate us if they ever came to pass. Maybe it's a movie you remember so fondly that any updated version would be the equivalent of stomping on a childhood memory. Or, it could be a certifiable classic you think is so technically perfect that just the idea of anyone daring to improve on it is blasphemous, regardless of their intentions. My list is very short, but 1984's The Karate Kid was on it, more for the former reason than the latter and also a dozen others. The main problem for me is that it's a cheap shot on an already woefully under-appreciated movie that, while well-liked, is still unfairly thought of as a cheesy guilty pleasure. Worse still, there really isn't anyone who could have spoken out against this happening. Pat Morita passed away. If Ralph Macchio slams the idea he'll just be labeled a has-been actor who can't let go. Because the original isn't considered "classic" in the strictest sense no one's likely to be up in arms if it's remade, which is a shame since they actually should be in this case. But I'm not supposed to review the IDEA of remaking it (a good thing because that would undoubtedly receive zero stars), but the actual film, which ends up being offensive for entirely different reasons, most centering around the insertion of child actors into violent adult-like situations.

I have to wonder how those parent watch groups so upset at the cartoonish, satirical depiction of violence in Kick-Ass would justify what the filmmakers present here seriously or what they'd say about Jackie Chan beating up children. I understand that remakes are supposed to take liberties with the story and re-imagine it for current audiences (and wholeheartedly support that approach), but if you're going to do that, why re-enact the original story virtually beat for beat, but with child actors? I'll tell you why: Money. Unlike the original film, this isn't intended for all audiences, but very specifically pre-teens since they drive the box office these days, which would be still be fine if that motivation didn't effect the final product so adversely. Whether the movie works for that age group I have no idea (box office figures suggest it does), but it didn't for me. It may seem unfair to compare it so closely to the original, but when when the filmmakers insist on calling the movie The Karate Kid and regurgitating all the plot points with 12-year-olds, they're pretty much asking for it.

You already know the story and it stays mostly the same with some changes made by writer Christopher Murphey that are defensible but add absolutely nothing, and others that reveal the remake's transparently shallow intentions. Daniel LaRusso becomes 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and a move to California from New Jersey is now an arrival in Beijing from Detroit when his mom Sherry's (Taraji P. Henson) automotive job transfers her overseas. The film's Mr. Miyagi is Mr. Han (Chan), the apartment's aging maintenance man moonlighting as a wise martial arts expert who  eventually agrees to train the bullied Dre in kung-fu (not a typo). "Wax on, wax off" is now "jacket on, jacket off." The movie is at its best when dealing with the effect the dislocation has on Dre and director Harald Zwart does a reasonably good job giving us a feel for the country as well conveying the fear of a child being stuck in a country where he has no friends and doesn't speak the language. So far, so good. While these are all pointless changes I can live with them and was willing to see where the filmmakers were going to take this and what provisions were going to be taken with the story to accommodate the new setting and age of the main character. As it turns out, none are taken, and the film rehashes everything from the original but with 12-year-olds, which creates some big problems if you remember what those plot points were, or even if you don't. Matrix-like kung-fu moves in the schoolyard, gang style chases through streets, fighting in tournaments that could pass as MMA or UFC competitions, and nearly being beaten to a bloody pulp by adults are all highlights of this family entertainment. I didn't personally find it offensive so much as just weird and tonally out of context.

"Break his leg" takes on a more disturbing, sinister meaning when the instructions are given to small kids and it's almost unbelievable this never occurred to the filmmakers. Master Li (Yu Rongguang) is the evil kung fu instructor who basically runs a killing camp and could be considered a child abuser in any country.  In the original the Cobra Kai was at least recognizable as a martial arts facility of some sort despite its questionable practices and sensei Kreese and Johnny were living, breathing personalities we definitely didn't like, but cared what happened to. The villains here are blank, robotic monsters and Li's star pupil and lead bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), comes off as a trained assassin from a Mortal Kombat video game, which is their creative right, but you have to wonder how they could think it was a good idea with actors this young. The childhood romance involving Dre and the violinist from school he's crushing on ends up being more sweet than creepy, which is somewhat of a miracle considering how ill-advised an idea it was to begin with, but a testament to the performances of Jaden Smith and newcomer Wen Wen Han as Mei Ying. Even their typical false crisis toward the end and its resolution was handled more intelligently than expected. I'll at least give it that.

Smith is a likable in a lead role he should have never been asked to play to begin with, but what's worth noting in his casting is that he's past the point where he can play cutesy child-like parts like he so effectively did opposite his dad in The Pursuit of Happyness, yet not old enough to tackle this one. He's at that weird in between pre-teen stage that makes him exactly the wrong age for the story, but exactly the right age for any movie executive looking for dollar signs. He's a talented performer and I don't begrudge Will Smith at all for trying to create opportunities for his son, but begrudge him instead for thinking this could work. Chan sleepwalks through his cover of Mr. Miyagi and great pains are taken to make sure he not only doesn't look like a kung-fu expert, but that he appears sloppy enough to pass as homeless. Plus he limps, hangs his head and mumbles. They go to such unnecessary lengths in trying to make his secret skill a revelation that by the time he's training Dre we actually don't believe he could. The filmmakers have actually zapped Chan's credibility as a martial artist, one of the few promising aspects this project had going in. His big dramatic scene is overplayed and seems to come out of left field because we weren't given any reason to care about the character leading up to it. Taraji P. Henson leaves a negative impression with minimal screen time as Dre's mom, insufferably ranting and raving like a lunatic in a stereotypical role.

As much as it pains me to admit it, from a technical standpoint this is a competent piece of filmmaking that never drags for its lengthy 140 minutes, although part of that could be due to how flabbergasted I was at what they were attempting to pull off. It probably deserves slightly more credit than I'm giving it but I'll refuse if only on principle. What they're doing here creates a slippery slope and I've got to wonder what the reaction would be if they decided to remake Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane or The Godfather with 12-year-olds to make a quick buck. Of course, I'm not suggesting the 1984 movie is in that league but the point remains the same since it would be just as awkward seeing those films' casting and story tinkered with in such a way. Even though this is supossed to be The Karate KID there's a big difference between pre-teen kids who look like they're in elementary school and high school teens entering young adulthood played by actors in their early to mid twenties. The original film featured a protagonist who starts the film as a boy and ends it as a man and it was that journey that gave the story its emotional resonance. Here, we have a protagonist who starts the film as a precocious little kid and ends it as a precocious little kid...who now knows Kung-Fu.

Given how ambivalent and skeptical moviegoers usually are toward remakes it's ironic that one of the worst recent offenders would be so warmly embraced. After its commercial success I'm officially worried what's next, as no movie is off limits and no idea too ridiculous for "re-imagining." Now anything is fair game. This version of The Karate Kid is a cash-in on the original and nothing more, which would be tolerable if the evidence of that wasn't right there up on the screen. Re-make or not, the goal of a film is to best serve the story and when that suffers at the expense of getting Justin Bieber onto the soundtrack, then something's probably wrong.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Social Network


Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

SPOILERS FOLLOW 


You are going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that that’s not true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”  


David Fincher's The Social Network doesn't waste any time. It gets down to business right away and if you thought going in this would just be "The Facebook Movie" it takes only until the end of the verbally explosive opening scene to change your mind. In it, future Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) after she tires of putting up with his obsession with gaining entry into Harvard's "final clubs" because they'll lead to a better life. They talk and talk, firing Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin's dialogue at and over each other at machine gun speed in a crowded, dimly lit bar with the conversation becoming more contentious as he turns sarcastic and condescending. At first, she almost seems interested, almost amused, until it becomes obvious this is someone without a clue how to interact with people, and as shocked as he is at being dumped, we are at how he got a date with her in the first place. Then comes that blistering quote above. That question of whether Zuckerberg really is an asshole never completely goes away. And if he is, does that preclude him from being a genius? Or a visionary? Or maybe he's just lucky. We don't get what resembles an answer until the final scene but it's the aftershock of the opening one that reverberates through the rest of the picture.

That night, the brutal break-up sends Zuckerberg sprinting back to his dorm room to drunkenly blog about Erica and with the help of his best (and only) friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), create a stir with a server-crashing page called "FaceMash," a "Hot or Not" type application where guys get to rate and compare the physical attractiveness of females on campus. With that the idea of Facebook is planted and one of the elements I appreciated most in Sorkin's screenplay is its full acknowledgment that Zuckerberg didn't exactly invent the light bulb here, but expanded on what was already being implemented shoddily by Friendster and MySpace. It's all in the execution, much of which revolves around the added ingredient of "exclusivity," or the notion that people want to feel as if they're in on something cool. That's what the other social networking sites were missing and once it's incorporated into what was then known as "THE Facebook" the possibilities became endless, as did the pitfalls. Ironically, Zuckerberg provides the perceived social acceptance for people online he could never receive himself on campus until meeting the Winklevoss Twins (Armie Hammer), crew team jocks who recruit him as programmer for their new relationship-based "Harvard Connection" web site emerging (coincidentally or not) just as Zuckerberg launches his.

The story is mostly told through flashbacks and interspersed with courtroom depositions from the two lawsuits eventually brought against Zuckerberg by the twins claiming intellectual property theft and from co-founder Saverin, who's cut out of his piece of the pie by his best friend as the company expands. The wedge driving them apart is Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a hard partying hype machine looking to latch on to the next big thing after lawsuits from the music industry bled him dry. What's so funny is as the company grows bigger and bigger the further removed it becomes from the original conceit of re-creating the social experience of college online. With expansion comes at least some degree of exclusivity lost and you're left wondering whether the whole thing really would have been better off confined to campuses, since Facebook, as we know it now, has inadvertently come closer to re-creating the social experience of high school more than college. More importantly, we're also left wondering whether Zuckerberg would have been better off since the "better life" he wished for himself didn't necessarily include being the CEO of a billion dollar company. Money isn't the primary motivator for someone who shows up to courtroom depositions wearing jeans and Adidas flip-flops.

Jesse Eisenberg wasn't just the best choice for Zuckerberg, but the only actor who could have possibly done justice to the role, giving his most complex performance yet and one that should finally end those annoying and unjustified Michael Cera comparisons. Having already occupied one end of the spectrum with awkward portrayals of sensitive nerds who win the girl at the end, he leaves the nerd part intact, but removes nearly every other emotion. His trademark accessibility as a performer is muted, offering the character up as a damaged, rejected soul so frustrated at his social incompetence (which borders on Asperger's) and obsessed with fitting in that he uses the only weapon he has: His I.Q. Surprisingly, Timberlake's performance as opportunistic party animal Sean Parker isn't the strongest among the major supporting players but it's important to put that in perspective since he still steals every scene he's in. At first glance he appears to be playing an exaggerated version of himself but his work grows on you and the more you think back on it the more you have to love the irony of music's biggest superstar giving inspirational speeches extolling the virtues of internet piracy and file sharing.

British actor (and future Spider-Man) Andrew Garfield, steals the movie out from under everyone as Eduardo Saverin, the company's CFO who's betrayed by his best friend. We anticipate a smooth, cool operator in full control but Garfield conveys a certain vulnerability and wimpiness that suggests he's being taken for a ride and used as Zuckerberg's doormat, yet he still manages to find a way to make him not come off as a fool. He earns the most sympathy and while still not totally blameless emerges as the biggest victim no matter how many different sides of the story seem to be presented. It's his story as much as Zuckerberg's and you should probably get familiar with his laptop smashing meltdown at Facebook headquarters as you'll likely be seeing many clips of it over the next few months.

As twin rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (AKA the "Winklevii"), Armie Hammer, aided by Fincher's impressive Benjamin Button-level technology, creates two separate and unique personalities, identical only in never knowing how it feels to not get what they want, as Zuckerberg puts it. Consider how unlikable they could have been and appreciate how Hammer prevents that, to the point that you actually kind of feel bad for these privileged kids and want to take their side, if only because no one else will. With just two and a half scenes and under five minutes of screen time, Rooney Mara is unforgettably devastating as the catalyst of this social earthquake and it'll be a while before I forget that look on Erica's face when she realizes how Zuckerberg humiliated her. Facebook was about a girl, which makes perfect sense since everything always is. Speculation can now start as to whether she's real, fictitious or maybe resides in that gray area in between. 

Watching the deposition scenes and seeing each character's point of view gives us no better understanding of the truth since all that can be said for sure is that each character believes completely what they're saying. Similarly, you're left to watch and wonder how much if any of Sorkin's script (adapted in part from those depositions and Ben Mezrich's non-fiction novel, The Accidental Billionaires) can be considered a reliable interpretation of real-life events. Supposedly, the real Zuckerberg hasn't seen the film but has gone on record stating it's fictional and meant to be fun.  And on that count he's right, especially anything involving the twins and Zuckerberg's hilariously sarcastic "testimony."  Whether he's viewed it or not, or whether he actually means that or not, he may have unintentionally hit the nail on the head in terms of the right approach to take with this. And there are definitely worse things than being an important enough American figure to warrant a picture of this quality.

With Fincher and Sorkin involved I knew this wouldn't actually be ABOUT Facebook, but it's still amazing just how little it is about it and how much is accomplished with what looked on paper to be the most laughable of topics for a feature film. We should have known not to doubt them when we first hear Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' unforgettably unnerving and moody score and see just how dark and gloomy everything looks, confirming that the director who made Fight Club and Zodiac most definitely made this. And as challenging as it should have been to maneuveur around a subject that potentially deals with a lot of talking and sitting around at computers and boardrooms, it's surprising the number of scenes that consist of that, and how tension-filled and exciting they are. 

Comparisons are being made to Citizen Kane, but in all fairness those stem mostly from narrative and thematic similarities, which are plentiful. Like Kane, Zuckerberg gets lonelier and more isolated as he rises to the top, except he manages to spread his loneliness to everyone else. We're all now as socially disconnected as he is, while strangely somehow feeling more connected, at least on some superficial level. Yet there's something admirable and anti-heroic about the character because he set out to achieve a goal and did it the only way he knew how.

How you enter The Social Network is a big determining factor as to how you'll feel when you leave, mainly because of that mysterious phenomenon known as "HYPE," a force capable of cutting down any film, regardless of quality. It seems for a change I was actually able to keep my insanely high expectations mostly in check, resulting in them being exceeded. And as difficult as it's been, I've been careful to contain my praise knowing plenty of opportunities should arise for me to gush about it further in the coming months. It'll be interesting to find out how a film so timely and dependent on current technology will age, but I bet if you showed it to an audience ten years ago and told them this is the direction we're headed, their eyes probably would have popped out of their heads.

It's entirely too early to determine whether it "speaks to a generation" but it definitely speaks to the moment and there is a feeling that its story of greed, loneliness and betrayal has a fighting chance at outlasting the social phenomenon that spawned it. Despite not caring much for Facebook, I'd never suggest the story behind it doesn't deserve to be told, especially when it's constructed as brilliantly as this. The Social Network makes the strongest case yet for Facebook's existence, being that we couldn't have gotten this film without it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Iron Man 2


Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell
Running Time: 125 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

While it seems like faint praise, Iron Man 2 really isn't all THAT much worse than its predecessor. What complicates the issue is that the first film was massively overpraised, accumulating truckloads of accolades for just simply being a fun, competent summer diversion. So we all knew, if only for monetary purposes, we'd see a sequel, no matter how unnecessary. As the continuation of the groundwork laid in the original, this film works as a logical progression, except for the fact that it's a discombobulated, annoying next chapter of a story that didn't need to be told to begin with. I'll give it this though: At least it lets go and tries to have fun, and doesn't attempt at any point to try and get us to take the material seriously, which was a sore spot with me in the original. Unfortunately, there are enough other problems to go around. And how couldn't there be with so many plotlines and characters fighting for attention? Packed with non-stop action, celebrity cameos and quick one-liners, the movie never bores. It advertises instead, delivering what amounts to a mildly enjoyable two-hour Marvel Studios trailer.

For at least the first hour, it appears director Jon Favreau had the ingredients for a successful sequel, until losing his way in the second act. It's at it's best early on when focusing exclusively on Stark Industries CEO, Tony Stark (Downey), who's now living the life of a rock star after revealing his identity as Iron Man to the world. The government doesn't quite see things his way as senate hearings are called in an effort to get Stark to turn over the Iron Man technology. Meanwhile, mad Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) aims to settle a long-standing family grudge by constructing a reactor-powered suit to take Stark down and finds a generous supporter in rival defense coordinator, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). With the reactor in his chest slowly releasing toxins that are killing him, Stark appoints his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) new CEO.  He must also deal with the mysterious arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. organization director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who's undercover agent, Natalie Rushman, (Scarlett Johansson) has infiltrated his company.

The set-up for all of this is actually quite good with Favreau doing an admirable job handling an overstuffed Justin Theurox script that tries to find room for every character, without giving enough of them something to do, or us a reason to care. For a little while at least he effectively balances all the sub-plots and it was the right way to go focusing on the hard-partying Stark's struggle to deal with increased with his new found celebrity. Then at about the hour mark Samuel L. Jackson appears as Nick Fury and this becomes a paint-by-the-numbers superhero movie doubling as an infomercial for whatever sequel or franchise Marvel studios is planning to take our dollars with next. In this case, it's The Avengers and while comic fans may be drooling over it (assuming it's ever even released), that's not an excuse to sidetrack the story being told NOW. You know, the one with Iron Man in it. For all I know it could fit perfectly into the Marvel "Universe" but in this film it doesn't and in a deck already stacked too high with sub-plots and characters, it's an unnecessary addition. Not quite as worthless as the throwaway Tony Stark cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk, but close. The rest of the film suffers along with it as Stark's best friend Lt. Jim Rhodes' (Don Cheadle taking over for Terrence Howard) transformation into War Machine feels too rushed, the Natalie Rushman character loses her mystique the more we learn about her and the promising storyline involving the alliance between Hammer and Vanko turns into a bit of a mess. The remaining run time is a big blur, lost in a sea of noises and explosions before arriving at the final credits.

The performances are mostly solid all-around but let's be honest in admitting that as well as he plays it, the role is clearly beneath an actor as talented as Robert Downey, Jr. who could be spending his time on more meaningful projects that better utilize his skills. There's nothing wrong with taking on fun, escapist entertainment but this is essentially a repeat of his work in the last, with the cockiness amped up. It's to his credit that he makes Stark's struggles interesting at all but praising him for this role is starting to feel like congratulating The Rolling Stones for covering Katy Perry songs. Well done, but a waste. The biggest letdown is how little is done with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Pepper going from being the rarest of well-written female love interests in the first film to merely an afterthought. You know it's bad for her when even a bloated Garry Shandling (who now strangely resembles Jiminy Glick) gets just as much screen time as a crooked senator. Still, even a little Gwyneth goes a long way. Johansson really isn't done any favors either with an underwritten role, which is a shame because her character had potential. Rourke looks to be having almost too much fun as Vanko/Whiplash, letting his inner goofy flag fly with a pet parakeet and a hilarious take on a Russian accent while Cheadle is actually a downgrade from Terrence Howard as Rhodes, possessing a more calming, laid back presence that conflicts with the commanding one we previously associated with the role. That it was recast so haphazardly by the filmmakers demonstrates how little regard they have for a character that could have easily been excised from the film altogether without anyone noticing. Aside from Downey, the best performance comes from Sam Rockwell, who steals every scene he's in as Stark nemesis Justin Hammer. If the series must continue (and you know it will) his return would at least be a suitable consolation prize.  

If I'm making it all seem slightly worse than it is it's only because this franchise wore out its welcome after the first film and there's no reason to keep going other than the almighty dollar, which the filmmakers make abundantly clear with their cross-promotional tie-ins. They should concern themselves with making one really good film first before thinking ahead to other ones. Part of the problem may be that after The Dark Knight the bar has been raised to the point where all these superhero movies can't help but come off as child's play, with this being no exception. But at least it moves at a brisk pace, the action sequences impress (the race track scene is something else) and unlike last year's big summer release, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it has its fun moments, most of them again provided by Robert Downey, Jr. Calling Iron Man 2 disappointment wouldn't be fair, if only because it assigns the sequel expectations it couldn't have met to begin with.