Friday, September 30, 2011

Movie Review: "The Social Network" by David Pretty

 Hey!  A hearty electronic "Poke!" out to all of my "Friends"!

For the purpose of full disclosure, the first time I reviewed this movie it was through Flixter on Facebook. But, since I wanted it to be read by more than one person, it was an undeniably superior alternative to, say, scribbling it down in my completely anonymous movie review journal.

Before I go any further, here's a video attachment to go along with my status post:

The Social Network tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Zombieland's Jesse Eisenberg), a socially inept but brilliantly accomplished computer genius attending Harvard University. After a nasty break up with his girlfriend, an inebriated Mark publicly calls her out on his blog and then hacks into the Harvard's residence hall's social websites to create a crass "hotness" rating system for the female students.

Although he's put on academic probation for the stunt, his proficiency catches the collective eye of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and body double Josh Pence), a pair of well-to-do identical twins on Harvard's prestigious rowing team. They tell Mark about their embryonic concept for a social network site that they believe will eclipse the popularity of MySpace and Friendster.

This seems to spark Mark's creative juices and, after securing financial backing from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), he vanishes from public, only to re-emerge a few weeks later with a build for his own iteration of the idea, which he's dubbed "thefacebook". When it goes live across campus it sparks a burgeoning phenomenon as well as a tentative campaign by the Winklevoss twins to prove that their concept was pilfered.

A rift eventually develops between Mark and Eduardo when the latter is accepted into an exclusive fraternity, begins tub-thumping to monetize "thefacebook" and then butts heads with Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) who conveniently starts sniffing around just before the site goes viral. When Sean tempts Jesse to go out to California with him, Eduardo's role in the genesis of Facebook begins to diminish.

And here lies the inherent irony of the story: a socially awkward wunderkind gets obscenely wealthy creating a social media site which ends up alienating one of his few legitimate friends.  Director David Fincher, responsible for some of the greatest films of the past twenty years, shows us just how savvy he is in addressing the zeitgeist of pop culture.  After all, in today's technology-soaked age, it's unlikely billionaires like Zuckerberg who prove that the best possible opportunities in today's world are those that you make for yourself. 

Fincher does a great job creating an energetic, visually varied film out of a story which might have degenerated into endless shots of people staring at a computer screen. Particular credit for the film's success goes to screenwriter Alan Sorkin who's crackling dialogue expertly sculpts the characters into three-dimensional entities.  For example, Mark's dialogue is rapid-fire and disjointed, Sean's lines are rife with snake-oil and Eduardo's speech is level-headed and practical.

One of the most amazing scenes is actually the very first one to kick off the film.  The verbal fencing between Mark and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) is so fast, dense and labyrinthine that it practically grabs you by the lapels, pulls you close and forces you to be engaged in the balance of the story.

The principal actors really run with the A-list material.  Jesse Eisenberg brings Zuckerberg to life as a rapid fire smart-alec who's concept of friendship seems to be based on how useful people can be to him.  Having said that, the deposition scenes which see him duck and weave between two separate lawsuits, seems to take a noticeable toll on him despite his bravado.

Justin Timberlake strikes the perfect balance between brash confidence and Svengali smarm as Sean Parker. Andrew Garfield represents the heart of the picture and watching him slowly get shut out of Mark's life is appropriately difficult to endure. Armie Hammer and Josh Pence are also great pulling double duty as stereotypical Ivy League templates who are paralyzed by inaction for half the film just because someone had the temerity to deny them what they wanted.

The denouement of the film is brilliant. Mark has been beat up pretty badly during the deposition but he's had a few earnest conversations with Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones) an attractive, no-nonsense junior lawyer. Both seem to reach him somewhat and the film's final sequence has Mark sending his ex-girlfriend Erica a friend request on Facebook. He then proceeds to refresh the screen over and over again, desperate for a reply and some sort of validation as a human being.

The Social Network is a powerful modern testimonial about how technology is a poor substitute for traditional human relationships. Indeed, Mark's success is almost a sign of the times. After all, he became obscenely wealthy due to his skills as a programmer not as a humanitarian. He found a way to exploit our growing disconnect between our friends and he did it with barely a smile.

         Tilt: up.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movie Review: "Roller Town" by David Pretty

Was' Happenin', Roller Boogerians?

Let me get this out of the way right now: I enjoyed the shit out of Rollertown.  Now, I'm sure some people can watch this film completely stone-faced, but honestly, those people are dead inside.  They're likely the same morons who think that Dane Cook, Russell Peters and Paul Blart: Mall Cop are funny.

For the record those...things aren't funny.  Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. and Picnicface are funny.  Go figure, I like wit, edge and a high dose of creative weirdness in my comedy.  So sue me.

As a side note, if you don't know anything about the Halifax-based (?) comedy troupe Picnicface: shame on you!  They're a very talented crew and their serendipitous formation, in my humble opinion, fills a critical Canadian cultural void we have to see this generation's take on The Kids in the Hall and/or The Frantics.  With a feature film, book and television show all forming an unavoidable corona of comedic clarity I really believe Picnicface is truly on the cusp of much-overdue national success.

I just hope they they don't turn into the equivalent of that awkward, geeky girl you had a crush on in junior high school who started getting a bunch of attention from guys just after she sprouted boobs and then, all of a sudden, she got all hot, snobby and self-absorbed.

Um, sorry...I digress...

Mercifully, Rollertown is more then just a pair of bookish glasses, a shy smile and a training bra.  It  has wit, edge, and weirdness aplenty.  Actually the film probably would have worked fine as a comedy if the cast and crew just done a shot-for-shot remake of Roller Boogie, Skatetown USA or one of the other god-forsaken roller disco films which polluted the pop-culture landscape of the late 70's.  Mercifully, in addition to all the parody potential inherent in the original source material, Rollertown isn't afraid to riff off into its own absurd and surreal territory.   

The film follows Leo (Mark Little), an idealistic dreamer weaned on the magic of wheel-bound disco dancing.  He's had a rough life thus far: his application for formal skate training has been gratuitously rejected, his dad was murdered by gangsters as a child and his mom died weeks before he was born.  I know, pretty rough, huh?

But he's found solace in "Rollertown", the local skating rink.  It's operated by Murray (Brian Heighton), a sweet, well-intentioned father figure who's just trying to look out for the kid.  Leo's also lucky enough to meet Julia (Kayla Lorette) the girl of his dreams.  Despite his tendency to judo-chop her in the throat and his penchant for manually altering her facial features, the two seem oddly well-suited for one another.

But all is not well.  The opportunistic Greggs (George William Basil) and his hapless goon Beef (Pat Thornton) start leaning on Murray to ditch the roller boogie business in lieu of the next big lucrative thing: video arcade consoles.  Murray manages to hold out for awhile, but its not long before the addictive, anti-social video games (like my own personal favorite: Mouth Wheel) are causing kids to cast off their roller skates and hand quarters over like rats at a feeder bar.

Things become even more dire when Julia's mayoral father (Christopher Shore) reveals a John Lithgow-like hatred for Leo and his brand of low-brow skater shenanigans.  He'd much rather see his daughter pursue a career in classical roller-skating (?) and get willfully molested by prototypical yuppie Davis (Scott Vrooman).  Oh, and have I mentioned that he's in cahoots with Greggs as well? 

It's across this crowded dance floor that Leo must carefully duck n' weave.  During this time he's captured, suffers through a horrendous skate amputation, and then embarks on a painful rehabilitation process overseen by a crazed, corn-obsessed forest hobo named Pete (Andrew Bush).  But just like bell-bottoms and leg-warmers, Leo makes a comeback and begins a quest to avenge his precious roller rink.

I loved this stupid film.  I loved Beef's brain-damaged interrogation techniques and his choice of reading material.  I loved the Disco Dogfather.  I loved the unthinking, suicidal loyalty of Greggs's goons.  I loved the gleeful willingness of Julia's entire family to graphically mime what it means to be a roller-skating double-dicker.

My only real gripe is the under-usage of certain members of the Picnicface troupe.  Now, I'm sure this had everything to do with each member's availability and their sometimes-minor roles, but whatever the reason, it hurts.  For example, Brian MacQuarrie's indignant, rage-filled Grandpa is pure comedy genius.  Bill Wood makes the most of his abbreviated screen time as the gremlin-esque Brick Assassin.  Evany Rosen, who plays the gum-smacking, dry-humping Beth is also a delight whenever she's on-screen.  And finally Cheryl Hann, who gets a stellar scene early on as a waterfoul-obsessed skating instructor, seems to have been an editing suite casualty as one of the three Boogie Wonderland girls.

The principal actors, on the other hand, acquit themselves quite nicely.  Mark Little carries the film effortlessly.  He's charismatic, eternally put upon and likeably dim as Leo.  He's a real master of the "earnestly oblivious" delivery.  I just loved his scene with Murray where he screams back "Wait!  Listen to me!!!" and then proceeds to draw out an incredibly funny patch of seemingly endless awkward silence.

I would have expected Evany Rosen to reprise her role as Leo's love interest Julia from the promo trailer, but in the feature film, that part has been passed down to Kayla Lorette.  She's more than a suitable substitute, however, she's bright, genuine, sweet and capable of impeccably comedic timing.  Her reactions to Mark's crazed verbal wanderings and odd behavioral tics alone are priceless.

Scott Vrooman and Kyle Dooley are also great as the preppie foils to Mark's character.  Vrooman in particular gets some nasty, smarmy dialogue to work with and he uses it to great effect.  His awkward, incessant pawing over Kayla (not to mention Kyle's expert toadying) just make you love to hate these guys.  In addition, their mid-film mace fight make a compelling case that the descriptor "epic" isn't over-used after all.

I'm also a huge fan of  Brian Heighton, who plays Murray.  Originally cast as Julia's dad in the promotional trailer, this time Brian has plenty of opportunities to interact with Mark Little and the bad guys.  He veers effortlessly back and forth between pleading, befuddled and paternal.  His bullet proof vest malfunction is worth the price of admission alone.

I would really be remiss if I didn't mention George William Basil as Greggs and Pat Thornton as Beef.  Together they comprise the greatest example of comically impotent villainy ever seen on film.  I just giggle uncontrollably when I ponder the scene in which Gregg's tries to goad his counterpart into shooting himself in the head and Beef earns a reprieve with his confused and tentative reply of ""   Later, when Beef laments: "Yeah, I don't think I'm very good at this job" you actually kinda feel sorry for the poor shmuck.

A lot of praise for the film's success has to go to first-time director Andy Bush.  Although the film does occasionally reveal its low-budget pedigree (particularly whenever there's a stage set up or backdrop required), Bush and his Director of Photography Christopher Porter compensate with some truly ambitious set ups, visually arresting compositions and a commitment to shooting in as many varied locations as possible.  All of these things really ramp up the film's visual polish and help it to transcend beyond its shoestring budget. 

The movie's special teams also came through nicely.  The costumes and production design are simple yet evocative of a genuinely tasteless era. The lighting is appropriately garish.  Notably, the disco-inspired musical contributions by local wunderkind Rich Aucoin also sound absolutely genuine.  Which brings me to ask: Do we have Aucoin or one of the fictional Boogaloos to thank for the deathless lyrics: "It's a quarter to dick!/ It's half-past pussy!"

The machinations required to set up the movie's ending does sideline the rapid-fire humor for a bit, but frankly, I kinda like that.  I hate it when insecure, mediocre sitcoms like Will & Grace and Big Bang Theory insist that EVERY SINGLE LINE HAS TO BE A JOKE.  Frankly, I find this approach tiring, disposable and irksome.  I'd much rather have the screenwriters invest a bit of time and effort into setting up a joke in order to maximize its payoff.

Honestly, the best thing I can say about Rollertown is that I want to see it again.  And again.  And then maybe once more, and that's it.  Just kidding; honestly, any comedy I'm willing to see more then once has obviously made a pretty big impression on me.

Plus, how can you not love a film which features a life-or-death struggle between a brick-wielding gremlin and a transient armed with a squirrel?              
Tilt: up.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Movie Review: "Star Wars" Original Trilogy by David Pretty

Greetings, Aspiring Jedi and/or Sith!

Well, in light of the tremendous digital fart the new Star Wars Blu-Ray set is about to unleash into the poorly-ventilated bedroom of geek opinion, I thought I'd take it upon myself to review the three original films in the saga. Ready?  Then grab your lightsabers, jump into your X-Wing and let's jump into cinematic hyperspace!

Star Wars Episode I "A New Hope"                                   Release Date: May 25'th, 1977

The reason the first two Star Wars flicks are so good compared to the prequels is because they weren't the product of one man's limited talents.  Lucas is admittedly a great conceptual and visual genius as well as a crackerjack editor but he's a wretched actor's director and also terrible with dialogue.

When Lucas was trying to get Star Wars financed he was on still on shaky ground.  As such he was forced to listen to backers demanding that he let better writers take a pass on the script.  He also found himself surrounded with strong-willed actors like Harrison Ford who constantly lobbied for better dialogue.

Star Wars suceeds because it's the collaborative effort of many talented people.  By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, Star Wars was a franchise and Lucas had hoodwinked the movie-going populace into believing that he was the single creative force behind the trilogy.  However, when the prequel films were released, audiences quickly realized that "Emperor Lucas" had no clothes.

Everything works in Star Wars (to hell with this Episode IV crap). The production design was original and has since been copied ad nauseam.  The bluescreen/motion control/model effects were trailblazing at the time and are still seems somehow more "real" than current CGI.  The pacing is flawless, giving the film a cinematic roller-coaster quality.  

The story is epic and sees many of the characters complete a genuine arch of growth. The triumverate of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher arguably compromise the best chemistry amongst actors in a sci-fi flick. The film evokes child-like imagination without being childish. The mythological underpinnings of the film make it good universal viewing for just about everyone.

Sure some of the dialogue is a bit ripe.  Yes, some of the hairstyles and special effects are a bit dated.  But even after admitting to these minor faults, Star Wars is still a pinnacle in terms of a purely visceral cinematic experience.  People have to remember that the first film didn't spring from obligation or marketing.  It came from a place of passion by a visionary film-maker who was forced to collaborate with others in order to turn a B-grade concept into a modern mythology.

I haven't reviewed too many films that I consider life-altering.  In 1977, everyone loved Star Wars, not just geeks.  It gave an entire generation fodder for imagination and creativity.  As such, Star Wars certainly deserves my highest possible rating.

Star Wars Episode V "The Empire Strikes Back"            Release Date: May 25'th, 1980

Without a doubt, the best of the Star Wars films.  This is a perfect example of how a juvenile concept can reach a high-water mark with a good screenwriter and director at the helm.

Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan adapt a solid story by Lucas; a formula fans vainly hoped would be repeated for the prequels.  This episode didn't just trowel on a second helping of the first flick, it gave us diverse new worlds, original action set pieces, fantastic creatures and mysterious new characters like Boba Fett.  Unrelentingly bleak, Empire pulls our beloved heroes through a terrible knothole of pain, betrayal and shocking revelations which will alter them forever.

Yoda is the biggest revelation here and imparts more Zen Buddist wisdom in his short screen time than any other character in cinema history.  It's downright sad to witness this character get increasingly underwritten and dumbed down in later entries at the hands of less-talented screenwriters.

Which brings me to another point: the thought that anyone would consider those rare moments of character development in the first two Star Wars films "boring".  The reason the prequel trilogy is so poorly regarded is because they're designed for people with the attention span of a squirrel.  If a film has no decent dialogue or investment in character development, the result is paper-thin automatons who we just can't sympathize with.

Those precious introspective beats (Luke's lesson at the Cave, Yoda's Zen-like observations about the Force, Leia and Han's genuine sexual tension) create resonance with an audience.   If this doesn't happen in a movie then the audience starts to feel disconnected from what's going on.  They become disengaged, like the filmic equivalent of sitting around and watching someone else play a video game.

In order for Star Wars to become the viable franchise it still is today, the first sequel had to be just as good if not better.  Talented director Irvin Kershner, with his artistic eye and tremendous work with the actors, delivered a truly magical film that actually manages to eclipse the original in many ways.

It's a pity that Lucas didn't have enough respect for his own creation and continue to collaborate with talented people.  As Lucas slowly began to alienate his collaborators one at a time and assume totalitarian creative control over Star Wars, the series begin to betray the worst qualities of the Saturday morning serials that first inspired it.  Slowly, it would devolve from a timeless, elegiac modern myth and veer dangerously close to the realm of shlock.

But this doesn't diminish the accomplishments of The Empire Strikes Back.  For being more then just a rehash of the first film and for raising the entire concept above and beyond it's B-grade origins, the first Star Wars sequel deserves the highest possible plaudits as well.

Star Wars Episode VI "Return of the Jedi"                      Release Date:  May 25'th, 1983

Rumor has it that George Lucas was unhappy with Empire director Irvin Kershner for allocating all that extra time with the actors on set, as well as his "unnecessary" artistic flourishes and the liberties that were taken with the original script.  If Lucas had his way we might never have been treated to Harrison Ford's classic "I love you"/"I know" ad lib between Han and Leia.

By the time Jedi rolled around Lucas had the economic clout to make the other films exactly as he wanted: as high-priced remakes of the borderline cheesy chapter-play serials of this childhood. As a result, we're treated to some of the worst dialogue and most stilted scenes of the original trilogy.

Compare the Luke/Yoda sequence in Empire and Jedi and you'll understand what I'm talking about.  In the prior film Mark Hamill interacts with Yoda (essentially a rubber muppet) as if both are master thespians.  In the Jedi Master's death scene in the sequel, suddenly everyone is talking with faux formality and lack of contractions.  The hokey crash course in exposition with Obi-Wan that follows is equally clunky.

There are a multitude of similar scenes in the film.  Han and Leia's interactions as a "couple" are uncomfortably similar to the Anakin/Padme scenes in the prequels.  The family history discussion between Luke and Leia is painfully stilted.  The initial scenes between Luke, Vader and the Emperor also suffer to an extent from the same pall of stiffness.

There's also a pronounced and unexpectedly slapdash quality to the film.  Jedi features some of the worst matte paintings and creature designs in the entire saga.  Put a real-looking creation like Jabba in a room full of fake-looking muppets and the illusion is quickly destroyed.

And then there's the...*sigh*... Ewoks.  What makes them even more hateful is the fact that they might  have been Wookiees instead, but I suppose this just wasn't marketable enough to kids.  If you don't think the Ewoks were overly marketed just consider this: the work "Ewok" is never once used in the movie yet everyone on the planet knows what the furry little bastards are.

Indeed there are many omens here which pre-sage what's to come in the prequels: critters passing gas, inappropriate humor dismantling dramatic and tense scenes as well as loads of expository and/or socially retarded dialogue.

Mercifully Lucas hadn't purged all the talent out of his inner circle just yet and there are still some awesome things about the flick.   The FX in the final space battle and the scout walker attack are still stunning.  Ian McDiarmid's gleefully evil Emperor is a joy to watch.  Also, when Luke finally snaps yet still manages to redeem his pappy the audience can't help be moved.

Even though Star Wars went to ground for sixteen long years, its fandom continued to grow.  Despite being marred somewhat by unnecessary and wrong-headed digital "improvements", the late 90's re-release of the Holy Trilogy whipped anticipation for a whole new series of films into a palpable mania.

But in 1999 fans would truly know the meaning of the timeless phrase: "Sometimes wanting something is better then having it."

  Tilt: up.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Movie Review: "Elizabeth" by David Pretty

All Hail, Your Graces!

Feeling as if I was hanging on the edge of "evolution" after watching the last season of The Tudors, I quickly sought out Elizabeth.  The film's trailer certainly looked promising:

The film takes place nine years after the death of King Henry the VIII and begins with the struggle for the throne of England between his two children Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) and Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett).  The elder Mary becomes Queen but proves to be a bit unpopular since she has a nasty penchant for burning scores of people at the stake who don't share her orthodox interpretation of Catholic dogma.

When Mary falls deathly ill after only five years of turbulent rule, she nearly has her own sister put to death for fear that she will drive another wedge between the Church of England and the Vatican.  Despite her accurate predictions, Mary's hand is mercifully stayed and Elizabeth becomes her successor in 1559.  Elizabeth's  commitment to the Protestant Church seems to impress the general populace but it also earns her a cadre of enemies both in the clergy as well as amongst her advisors.

As if this isn't enough to cope with, she's also forced to  abandon her childhood love Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), tolerate advances from the skeezy Duke of Anjou, unravel secret plots to overthrow her, and combat rebellious French-backed Scottish forces led by her arch-rival Mary of Guise.  At first the twenty-three-year-old monarch tries to rule with her heart, but after a spate of early defeats she quickly begins to realize that her soft nature and desire to be loved by all can't be reconciled with being Queen.

What follows is an illuminating character study about how even a good soul is constantly assailed by absolute power.  The fact that Elizabeth's screenwriter Michael Hirst was the also the creator, executive producer, and head scribe for The Tudors lends the experience of watching both back to back an odd feeling of seamless continuity.  Like the four-season series that followed, Elizabeth boasts sumptuous and appropriately extravagant sets, costuming and photography.  The coronation sequences, the meeting with the French envoys and the court scenes are all handsomely mounted.

Cate Blanchett is flawlessly cast.  She's asked to inhabit several incarnations of this amazing woman, whether it be naive romantic, betrayed lover, pragmatic statesman or ruthless and stoic monarch.  The composition, editing and performance of her pivotal rehearsal prior to addressing a hostile Parliament is fascinating.  It's clear that she's terrified, and initially this causes her to be flustered by her critics when she goes before them.  But its gratifying to watch her diligent preparation begin to pay off.  Halfway through this trial by fire a switch seem to go off in her head.  She composes herself, uses humor to communicate the logic of her stance and then delivers the coup de grace in the debate with several well-measured declarations.

Of course, it certainly helps that her Machiavellian advisor, Francis Walsingham has taken it upon himself to detain some of the Queen's worst dissenters.  The great Geoffrey Rush is expertly cold and unreadable as Walsingham as he endeavors  to spare his Queen some of the more unsavory aspects of decision-making.

The stable of memorable performances is rounded out by some terrific supporting roles.  Sir Richard Attenborough is alternately frustrated and earnest as Elizabeth's senior advisor William Cecil. Christopher Eccleston brings plenty of passion, verve and ruthlessness to the role of conspirator Thomas Howard.

Joseph Fiennes is tremendous as Elizabeth's secret love interest.  Although his feelings for her never seems to diminish, Dudley's insecurity is palpable and we can see how his weakness and betrayal was instrumental in Elizabeth's transformation into the venerable "Virgin Queen".  Also, sharp-eyed viewers can have fun spotting future Bond Daniel Craig as a fervent papal assassin, Sir John Gielgud as Pope Pius V and Tudors graduate James Frain as the ill-fated Alvaro de la Quadra.

My only complaint is that the film actually feels a bit truncated, knowing that Elizabeth's story is just beginning as we watch the stellar final shot.  Otherwise, this is a fantastic portrait of how even an idealistic   humanitarian's soul can sometimes be colored by the pressures and often distasteful demands of political survival.  I'll certainly be seeking out the 2007 sequel as soon as I can.

Tilt: up.

Movie Review: "The X Files: I Want to Believe" by David Pretty

Like Fox Mulder, "I Want To Believe". Not in something extraterrestrial, I just want to believe that The X-Files can experience some kind of pop-cultural resurgence. Regrettably, the second X-Files feature isn't the vehicle to redeem the franchise. In fact, Mulder and Scully are saddled here with a pretty pedestrian script which sees our dynamic duo alternately connecting the dots in a "bait and switch" serial killer plot and covering familiar character beats that have already been explored ad nauseum. 

The film picks up years after the unfortunate end of the television series with Scully (Gillian Anderson) now acting as a physician in a Catholic hospital and Mulder (David Duchovny) still in hiding. With the mysterious disappearance of an F.B.I. agent and the only clues provided by a supposedly psychic defrocked priest (Billy Connolly), the bureau convinces Scully to bring Mulder back into the fold as part of their investigation.

As fantastic as it is to see these characters re-unite, mid-way through the film they're forced to run over the same tired old "faith versus facts" theme. This really comes to a hand-wringing head when Scully gives Mulder an ultimatum to stop pursuing "the darkness." As a long-time fan of the show I felt like screaming: "Cripes, Dana! He hasn't changed in the last fifteen years, do you really think he's gonna change now? Especially considering that YOU were the one who pulled him back into this 'darkness' in the first place?"

The bottom line is, most of their scenes together do little to enrich their characters. In fact, their tangential debates almost seem to exist merely to pad the film's run time. Nevertheless, they inhabit these familiar roles very well and Gillian Anderson in particular does a great job depicting a wide range of conflicting emotions. It's also nice to see Scully in a more traditional medical setting for a change even if the subplot regarding her young, terminal patient always seems to be diverting us away from the main story.

The supporting performances are a bit hit-or-miss. Xzibit in particular gives some pretty distracting line readings as F.B.I agent Drummy and Billy Connolly's physical mannerisms as Father Joe are almost unintentionally funny sometimes. I don't now if it was a deliberate choice or not, but it almost seems as if Connolly is trying to communicate something subtly effeminate about the character as if it's a symptom of the character's unsavory predilections. Former Battlestar Galactica cylon Callum Keith Rennie is appropriately menacing as the main heavy, but in order to keep the audience in the dark about whether or not we're seeing a traditional serial killer plot, his character's motivations and plans just boil down to a series of seemingly unrelated actions.

I understand creator Chris Carter's desire to get back to basics with The X-Files and jettison the convoluted central alien conspiracy plot but there just isn't enough meat on the bones of this script to sustain its 104 minute run time. The film's main plot hooks involving stem cell research, kidnapping and unconventional Russian surgery may allow for a few creepy moments, but it really would have been better served as an hour long television episode.

Still, the film's self-contained simplicity does make considerable amends for the last two lamentable seasons of the television show and frankly I wouldn't be opposed to watching another entry. That said, any new film would need to boast an original story idea so big, bold and outrageous that it would pull in moviegoers of every persuasion, whether they be "X-Philes" or not. I still believe in the power of this capable creative team and wish them luck should they go to bat again.

  Tilt: down.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Movie Review: "Fright Night" (1985) by David Pretty

Good Day, Fearless Vampire Hunters!

I can tell you right now: I liked the original Fright Night better then the remake.  And its got nothing to do with nostalgia.  Simply put, it took me about a week to do my review of the remake but, here I am, the day after seeing the original and I'm practically chomping at the neck to talk about it.

Before I pop my fangs prematurely, feel free to take a bite out of the film's original trailer:

Oh, those humble 80's trailers...

William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, a typical teenager who's main hobbies include dry-humping his white-bread girlfriend and watching crappy horror flicks on late night television.  His fright film diet comes courtesy of the titular "Fright Night", a late night "creature feature" show hosted by washed-up cinematic vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell).

In a nice little nod to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, Charley notices that odd things start to happen after the suave and mysterious Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door.  Elaborate coffins are smuggled inside.  Girls who enter the house at night turn up dead the next day.  And then, worst of all, he witnesses Jerry getting his nibble-on and then flapping around the backyard in bat-form.

Naturally, when he tries to convince others that Jerry is an Undead American, he's officially deemed delusional.  No-one believes him, not his mother, not his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and not even social misfit and resident spaz "Evil Ed" Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys).  After Charley sics the cops on his sun-allergic neighbor, the vampire pays him a visit the following night.  During this harrowing encounter Jerry threatens to murder the boy if he keeps crying wolf.  Unable to ignore the threat posed to innocent lives, Charley fights back, knowing that it will likely result in his own perforated neck.

One thing the original film does better is quickly generate tension and atmosphere.  Within the first fifteen minutes Charley starts witnessing things that would make anyone's spider-sense go off the chart.  I also love how Ed tries to placate him by telling him that he has nothing to worry unless the owner of the house actually invites Jerry inside.  Of course, in the very next scene, Charley's mom has the fiend over for tea, partly to quell her son's fears but mainly (we suspect) because that's just what lonely cougars do.

The original also does a superior job isolating Charley from his support system, thus making him desperate enough to seek Peter's help.  In the remake, when Jerry openly attacks the Brewster household, his girlfriend and mom witness the vampire's powers.  In the original, only Charley is privy to this and when he tries to get help, everyone just thinks he's Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs.     

A big beef I had with the remake was how the character of Peter Vincent was updated for modern audiences.  Since no self-respecting television channel shows late-nite monster movies anymore, they had to re-imagine Peter Vincent as theatrical Criss Angel-style Las Vegas stage magician.  Frankly, the connection Charley has with Vincent in the remake is tenuous at best but in the original, their relationship is actually makes sense and becomes a tremendous boon to the story.

Writer-director Tom Holland (who also gave us the killer-doll classic Child's Play) also manages justify Peter Vincent's involvement much better.  Concerned about how delusional and paranoid Charley has become, Amy retains the services of the cash-strapped Vincent to perform a test on Jerry to prove that he's human.  Unfortunately the test backfires and Peter is forced to come to grips with the fact that the teenager isn't making things up after all.  This sets the character up nicely for a redemptive story arc whereby the fallen thespian goes from craven loser to a semblance of his once-heroic on-screen persona.

One department in which the remake is clearly superior is realism.  Now, I know it's downright risible to discuss "realism" in terms of vampire movies, but this difference is worth noting between both films.  In many ways, the first half of the remake often comes across like a low-fi, gritty kind of thriller.  But the original is pure 80's kitch with a nice side-order of gruyere.

Although it's strangely hypnotic to catalog all the godforsaken, antiquated clothes, props and hair "styles" on display, it's also terribly distracting.  Every time actress Amanda Bearse is on-screen I kept getting flashes of Annette Funicello circa the Mickey Mouse Club.   As if that isn't bad enough, Brad Fiedel's completely synthesized score is particularly noxious.  Awful even for its time, I'm tempted to believe the music was actually composed by Herbie Hancock after a cocaine and adrenochrome bender. 

There is compensation, though, in the form of vintage practical sets and special effects.  In the remake, Jerry's house is identical to everyone else's, since the film is set in one of those godawful housing development areas.  Although that's unnerving in it's own right, you just can't beat Jerry's crib in the 1985 flick.  It's appropriately Gothic, and replete with cool, decorative art, massive stained glass windows and a prerequisite creepy basement.  It also seems to ooze copious amounts of bilious back-lit fog from time to time, which I'm surprised some neighbor doesn't mistake for a four-alarm fire.         

And then there's the gloriously rubbery (yet somehow "realer" then CGI) practical makeup, masks and animatronic effects.  I mean, c'mon, how can you not love these iconic and totally creepy critters?

It's also worth noting the state of vampire movies in the early-to-mid Eighties.  In the era of Twilight and True Blood it's hard to ponder this now but before Fright Night came down the pike, vampires were pretty passe.  In fact, this is actually eluded to in a speech that Peter makes to Charley after the boy comes to him for help:

"Apparently your generation doesn't want to see vampire killers anymore, nor vampires either. All they want to see are slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins."
Yep, that's right kiddies, back then vampires really took a back seat to the Jason's, the Freddy's, and the Micheal Myers's of the world.  In fact, Fright Night (along with Lost Boys in 1987 and Near Dark that same year) was integral to keeping the mythic bloodsucker on a pop culture slow boil.  We might call it cliche now, but back then Fright Night was one of the first popular examples of transplanting Bram Stoker's ghoul right into Spielberg-flavored suburbia. 

I just love the cast.  William Ragsdale as Charley comes off as a bit of a dickhead at first as he tries to pressure Amy into giving up her goodies.  But as he's willing to risk life and limb to expose Jerry and keep others from harm he starts to win us back.  His unabashed heroism in the final reel of the film is particularly admirable and by then we're totally in his corner.  Although you can't help but think that he was cast as the poor man's Zach Galligan from Gremlins, he actually delivers the anchor performance amongst the young principals.

Now, I dare you to watch this film and not get completely thrown off by the fact that Charley's girlfriend is actually Marcy D'Arcy from Married...With Children.  That's right, Amanda Bearse plays Amy, and if her horribly dated wardrobe doesn't have you complete distracted, then the fact that she's totally miscast will.

Although she plays cute and wholesome reasonably well, she was actually 25 years old when she made Fright Night.  Frankly, I've seen more realistic "teenagers" in 1950's hot rod movies.  Nevertheless, she really steps up her game when she falls under Jerry's thrall and starts scooting her vampy ass all over the mansion's floor.  This may sound like a bit of a slight, but she actually does a much better job during the scenes when she's supposed to be all evil n' slutty...  

Honorable mention also has to go to Stephen Geoffreys as "Evil" Ed Thompson.  Honestly, the jury is still out for me as to whether or not his line readings in the first half of the movie are inspired genius or the worst in horror film history.  Regardless, by the time Ed gets vamped, Stephen's unhinged performance suddenly starts to make sense and subsequently becomes the stuff of legend.  Witness the following scene, which never fails to crack me up:

Gold, Jerry, gold!  The really amazing thing is not five minutes later Stephen delivers a heart-rending performance which is genuinely upsetting and doesn't leave a dry eye in the house.  It even seems to have a powerful effect on co-star Roddy McDowell who shares the scene with him. 

And how can we not mention McDowell, one of the great unsung heroes of genre cinema?  Here he flawlessly inhabits the role of Peter Vincent.  When he first encounters Charley and begins to suspect that he isn't an adoring fan and is more likely just completely batshit insane, his facial expressions and use of body language makes for some truly inspired comedy.  Whether he's asked to be snotty, noble, dismissive, pompous, empathetic, grief-stricken, condescending, lily-livered or heroic, every turn is note-perfect.  Truly, the cinematic landscape was greatly diminished when McDowell left us.

And then last (but certainly not least) we have Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge.  In the immortal words of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Jerry is "one suave motherfucker".  Really, except for perhaps Frank Langella in the 1979 version of Dracula (or, to a lesser extent Christopher Lee in the Hammer films), this was the first time a vampire could move into the neighborhood and actually increase the property values.  He's confident, darkly charming and, back in 1985, his predisposition for eating apples actually made you think that Charley was being paranoid after all.

At every turn, Jerry proves to be consistently slick and cocky.  You always get the impression that he's really reveling in being a vampire.  This isn't a curse to him, he's really jazzed about all these terrific powers.  He also seems to delight in tormenting Charley whenever he can.  As such, it's particularly gratifying to watch his overconfidence evaporate after he underestimates his foes and the tables suddenly turn.         

I really have a soft spot for this flick.  If you can look past its woefully dated exterior you'll discover a film that really helped to drag the vampire myth kicking and screaming into the modern age.  The performances are solid, the kitschy effects are great and the script is more even and full-blooded then the recent remake.  Honestly, it's a lot of fun. 

Just don't buy the soundtrack.    

Tilt: up.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Movie Review "Fright Night" (2011) by David Pretty

Greetings, Children O' The Night!

The remake of Fright Night is just different enough to lead one to believe that the producers just attached the title to a completely unrelated script for added marquee value.  Mercifully, this actually bodes well.  After all, most horror remakes tend to boil down to a shot-for-shot recreation which does nothing different or innovative, save dressing the actors in modern garb.

See if you can get a sense for this in the film's tense-looking trailer:

Fright Night stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek's Pavel Chekov 2.0) as Charley Brewster, a typical teenager trying to make his way through his High School's popularity minefield.  In order to do so, he's turned his back on his former geek buddy, the still-loyal but slightly paranoid Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  This harsh tactic seems to have worked in the short-term since Charley is now lucky enough to be making time with uber-hottie Amy (played by the preciously named Imogen Poots).

Charley and his mom (Toni Collette) live in a suburban development tract way out in the Nevada desert, which looks like the same place where the Barenaked Ladies shot their video for "Call and Answer".  Into this identical, already inherently creepy setting comes Jerry (Colin Farrell) a tall, dark, Luciferian figure who turns the collective heads of the entire resident female population with his smoldering good looks.  As a night time construction worker, no one thinks it odd that he sleeps all day and keeps all of his windows painted black.

Soon Ed resurfaces like a harbinger of doom, claiming to have proof that Jerry is actually an immortal, nocturnal bloodsucker.  Given Ed's hyperactive imagination, Charley dismisses his ravings as delusional.  But when his former pal vanishes, photographic evidence surfaces and a neighborhood girl comes under threat, Charley gets pulled into the vampire's dark realm. 

Needless to say, Jerry doesn't take too kindly to his secret being threatened and when his assault on the Brewster household comes, it certainly isn't slow pitch.  To try and combat the undead threat, Charley turns to  Las Vegas gothic stage magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help.  Even after he's forced to believe the boy, Vincent turns out to be a craven poseur who's as useless as a screen door on a submarine.

Eventually this leads to the inevitable showdown, but even when forced to traipse down this mandatory plot path, the script continues to throw in periodic sliders.  You can credit former Buffy The Vampire Slayer scribe Marti Noxon with most of the film's innovations.  Just as we're getting ready for the conveyor belt of cliches to switch on, she defies our expectations.  For example, I really liked the shocking culmination of   Charley's early failed rescue attempt.  Also, after Jerry's true nature is revealed, I fully expected a slow, protracted mental chess game to occur between Charley and the vampire.  Instead, Jerry plays the equivalent of a nuke card.  As soon as this happens, we instantly suspect that the movie will take us into uncharted territory.

Director Craig Gillespie serves the witty script with a very low-key and almost retro style, kinda like the horror equivalent of Joe Johnston's Captain America.  He isn't afraid to invest some time in building tension which is infinitely more engaging then a series of unconnected jump-scares and gratuitous CGI.  When Charlie attempts to free Doris (Emily Montague) from Jerry's secret prison, it almost plays out like a scene from a Tarantino flick instead of a cheesy vampire yarn.  You almost expect Jerry to burst in dressed up as "The Gimp".

Speak of the devil, Colin Farrell's performance is a lot of fun to watch.  At the drop of a hat he's alternately charming, smarmy, threatening, psychotic, rage-filled and predatory.  In fact, he does such a great job here that it helps the film rise above it's inherently fanciful and preposterous premise.  His interpretation of the role is one part Chris Sarandon in the original Fright Night (he gets a fun cameo here) and one part Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.  The results are refreshingly original.  Frankly, it's high testimony to say that I wouldn't mind re-watching the film again just to see him go totally batshit insane again.

He's well-matched by Anton Yelchin's charming and earnest take on Charley.  I love that the script makes him flawed, having thrown off his Farscape-ian past and turned his back on his old friends.  He certainly does pay dearly for his lapse of social elitism.  When he finally gets proof that Jerry is indeed a vampire, Yeltsin does a fantastic job internalizing his terror.  You feel as if this kid is really suffering, trying to come up with a realistic way to keep his mom and girlfriend free of the vampire's thrall.  His desperation makes his encounter with Peter Vincent a bit more plausible.

David Tennant does a good job with the role of  Peter Vincent, but unfortunately we've seen this sort of wasted, obnoxious, British rock star type of character way too many times before.  In fact, he really just boils down to Criss Angel meets Russell Brand.  The script tries to provide him with a bit of a backstory and some progression but it's all pretty superficial.

To make things worse the whole "Fright Night"/Vegas stage-show angle feels pretty weak.  It's a shame that late night T.V. "Creature Features" have long since gone out of vogue since it made a lot more sense for Charley to seek out Vincent's help in the original film.  In that one, Charley watched "Fright Night" every evening on television, which allowed him to consistently see Peter as a sagely Van Helsing type.  Here believability is strained since Vincent is depicted as a nominal stage magician who's act we barely get a chance to see.    

Imogen Poots (Tee, hee!) as Charley's girlfriend Amy gets more to do then the average distressed damsel.  She's in the fight for as long as expectations will allow and her character even gets what passes for a minor arc nowadays.  Actually, this arc has more to do with our own expectations since she's immediately characterized by Ed as a vapid twinkie right from the start (presumably just because she's a hottie).  But soon the script drops hints that there's more to her then we originally surmised, like when she's seen devouring a copy of Wuthering Heights.

Unfortunately she (along with the rest of the film) eventually becomes master-slaved to the familiar dictates of the plot.  We know someone's gonna hafta get captured.  We know our hero will lead an assault on the vampire's stronghold.  Mercifully, Marti Noxon isn't content just to turn in a checklist of cliches.  For example, Charley manages to devise an innovative, self-inflammatory method to fight Jerry.  Having said that, I've gotta take a star away for the lame artifact provided by Peter Vincent, since it might as well have been called The Holy Script Convenience.  In fact, it's presence in the film really neuters the threat factor.

The special effects are used fairly sparingly and often employed to revel in the inherent powers of the vampire.  I got a kick out of Jerry digging up Charley's back yard, hucking huge boulders around like marbles.  There's also a stellar car chase scene which features Jerry doing his best Indiana Jones impersonation and then being impaled by the most creative use of product placement I've seen in years.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse also gets a few funny scenes, proving that just because you've got awesome vampire powers, it doesn't mean that your fighting skills have improved.  It's a riot watching him get woefully and comically mutilated during his extended scrap with our heroes.

Props also go out to the film's producers for coming up with a stellar vamp dusting effect which is really enhanced the the 3-D process.  More then once I felt compelled to reach out and stir the still-burning remnants of a dead bloodsucker around in the air.  The film's fiery and chaotic climax also gets a lot of mileage out of this gimmick, but earns jeers for it's copious use of CGI flying blood.

You won't see me write this very often but here goes: I'm not completely against the existence of this remake.  The solid performances and understated and original script ensures that I won't want to destroy every copy of the film after I become Emperor.

But I really do wish they'd changed a few more things and just come up with a brand new title.

Tilt: up.