Americanization: How Le Grand Chemin Became Paradise- Paradise (Part 2 of 3)

Paradise

Directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue 
Touchstone Pictures   Jean Francois Lepetit

Paradise begins at a private school where Willard (Elijah Wood) meets Clay and they talk about where they’re going for the summer. Clay is going to his summer home in Colorado. Willard lies and says he’s going to Africa. We then follow Willard home and see a very conventional scene establishing him as unpopular and lonely when he passes a pick up baseball game and is harassed by bullies. This scene is so common in American cinema (i.e. sports as a proving ground of childhood acceptance) that it fails to achieve its goal: creating sympathy for the protagonist. 
    


We are introduced to Willard’s mother and instantly pass judgment on her. Willard comes home and she is on the phone. She closes the door in his face because she is talking about a private matter. Later, we find Willard is being sent off to the country to stay with her friends as she gives birth to a new baby and can’t take care of him. As we will find later, the American version of the film will become overly-obsessed with justifying why a mother would send her only child to stay with her friends for a few weeks. Ironically, this justification is needed because this version of the film takes place in the present where childbirth is less difficult, thus making it more implausible than in Le Grand chemin.
   


Willard pleads with his mother that his friend’s mother gave birth and he didn’t have to leave but to no avail. The absolute lack of subtlety, which is another problem many American films face because commercial appeal is so crucial, creates some of the worst lines in this film. When the bus arrives at their destination Willard’s mother says ‘We’re here?’ Willard says ‘Where?’ and the response is ‘Paradise.’ This is the reason so many people joke ‘That’s where they got the title from!’ with mock-enthusiasm. Le Grand chemin is not as heavy handed in revealing its title as it’s the bus driver who yells out the stop their making. 
 

Upon leaving the bus Elijah Wood uses quite a good facial expression to show his disappointment with his surroundings. Wood was one of the most talented child actors to ever grace the silver screen, he and Melanie Griffith’s talents were utterly wasted in this poorly directed adaptation, whether or not Wood’s adult career will be as spectacular is yet to be seen. He will be in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and I found the first film overrated, which means in my opinion, his last great film was Black and White, an ensemble piece in 1999. [Clearly all of this is accurate as of this writing. Since the completion of the trilogy he has done little to live up the promise he showed as a youth, Maniac may change that.] 
   


Willard then meets Ben, played by Don Johnson, who pretty much only knows two emotions (straight and angry) and can’t act in either of them. And we get the same game of deception as we did in the French version. Remaking a film is truly a catch-22. When scenes were simply translated from the French I wanted new material and where there were new wrinkles added I thought they were covering the wrong ground. A perfect example is when we are introduced to Sally Pike (Sheila McCarthy) who is a waitress in a local dinner who is talking to Lily (Melanie Griffith) about how she has decided to get married. Sally’s marriage proposition will be one of two flimsy, underdeveloped and unnecessary subplots that Donoghue thrusts upon this once simple and beautiful film.
 

At the Reed home, we see Lily chop the head off a dead chicken. This scene is a microcosm of the difficulty in remaking a film that was originally the product of another culture. In Le Grand chemin Marcelle (Anémone) skins a rabbit which shocks the young Louis. Here it’s a chicken getting its head chopped off, while animal rights activists might not allow for an animal to be skinned French audiences wouldn’t be as queasy as to disallow even a simulation of the event. The context in which the action occurs justifies it whether you agree with it or not. They live in the country, thus, don’t buy clean pre-prepared chicken. However, just that little change when having the original niggling at the back of your head makes it an annoying occurrence. It makes you realize this movie is French. It was told from a French perspective yet something about that experience made it universal, by transplanting and Americanizing it we are ruining what made it wonderful. While certain cinematic experiences are ‘indigenous,’ meaning they have a greater significance to the culture that created it (i.e. Central do Brasil [Central Station]) there is still something about the film that made it renowned worldwide. The formulizing and studiofication of Le Grand chemin is sadly not the worst English translation but the fact that it was made at all is bad enough. Why couldn’t the general public just go to see the original? It makes Americans seem not only elitist but ignorant that we can’t go en masse to hear a new language and read while at the theatre. Read in the movies? God forbid!
   

The lack of subtlety strikes again when Willard meets Billie Pike (Thora Birch). Her first line is ‘Have you ever seen a dead body?’ This is a blunt insertion of the theme of death that runs throughout this and the original, again Jean-Loup Hubert handled the subject with much more delicacy than did Donoghue. We also then get the introduction of love and sex as themes in an equally amateur way when Billie asks if Willard would like to see her sister with ‘her clothes… off’ (Emphasis from film). This line shows the director’s fault in so many ways. First, this is terrible acting on Birch’s part (She would go on to be decent in her later films such as Now and Then and American Beauty). Second, this is obviously in the director’s opinion the best take of the line which I don’t find in the least bit amusing. Thus, Donoghue is also at fault for having emphasis added in the script. It might have worked on paper but when she realized what she was dealing with the line should’ve been re-written. 

And lastly, this also tends to point out the glaring yet unexplainable phenomena that many American directors have such a difficult time getting quality performances out of child actors whereas we see many fine performances by youths from all around the world. I believe part of the problem is that we as Americans coddle the child actor and view them as inferior giving them stupid and/or annoying roles and the directors seldom have enough understanding of these performers to guide them when a role does require more out of them.
   

Rosemary (Eve Gordon) is talking to Lily on the stairs about how her husband has left her and she doesn’t know how to tell Willard. This is implied in the original and its insertion here further divides our attention away from what the two main storylines really are and they are the relationship between Lily and Ben and between Billie and Willard. We do then switch to them and hear another gem (For some reason most of the poor dialogue in the film, if not all, is reserved for Billie). They are up in the tree and she says ‘I come here when I’m mad which, is most of the time.’ This is such lazy writing we get two major pieces of information which can be conveyed, and is conveyed, through the action of the film at various points. We understand this very quickly in Le Grand chemin mostly because Vanessa Guedj’s performance is much better than Thora Birch’s; the casting director of the French version also deserves kudos for a wise decision.    
 

In this version of the film we also get Billie being somewhat more ignorant than Willard on matters of sex. This coming from the use of a modern setting combined with the switch in what kids from the country and city know depending on country and on time period. We then go to a somewhat of a bonding moment between Willard and Lily in which they are picking string beans and preparing them for dinner. When Ben comes home he utters dialogue that is transplanted and meaningless given the context and Johnson’s lack of talent. His being cast makes me start to wonder if the casting was a marketing gimmick pairing real life spouses at the time (Johnson & Griffith). Ironically, on screen they were as mismatched as in real life.

What we then get is perhaps the biggest fumble of this film which is the exposition of the Reed’s dead child. One of the problems that haunt this version is that in the American version we find this information out too early in the film. This comes from our cultural imperative that films must be about ‘something’ right away. While there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, in this instance we ruin the simplicity of the film and also create a paltry melodrama by making Lily go into the baby’s room to hold things and cry. This makes all the emotions we feel in this film absolutely manipulated and contrived. Whereas in the French version all we see is Pello going into the room after a fight to destroy it. This is our first exposure to the room and we instantly see that is a museum of sorts for their dead child. The emotions elicited by his actions are real because as soon as we see it: 1) We know why Marcelle kept it unchanged. 2) we see Pello trying to destroy it to hurt her. This is the fault of the American studio because they underestimated the audience’s intelligence, which is always a sinful act by a filmmaker which sadly is committed all too often.
 

Billie at one point insists on finding her father who it turns out works at a roller skating rink. She goes there and is rejected. Paradise also on a few occasions tries to make Billie’s mother, the waitress, a central character. These are two inventions of the American version of this film which water down and show weakness in their filmmaking. Not only are the makers of Paradise unwilling to tell a simple story but they cannot even be subtle and they throw in unnecessary scenes of expositions amongst newly created adult characters who have never existed in the framework of this story. Even when a child actor is given a large role in an American film here we still find reticence to let the weight of the film rest on his/her shoulders. Something the French are extremely adept at doing. 
   

Paradise is not a bad film. Considering it is a remake of a French film I saw prior, it’s decent. It is, however, nothing to write home about. It misses the elusive magic and perhaps indigenous uniqueness that Le Grand chemin had. And it was doomed to be inferior from the start taking that into account which makes me wonder why a remake was allowed to happen in the first place.

61 Days of Halloween: A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Series Revisited

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Each year, since I’ve started doing 61 Days of Halloween anyway, I’ve selected a long-running horror series to view in its entirety in rapid succession. I’ve already done Halloween, Friday the 13th, Children of the Corn, Hellraiser and Final Destination. Now, whether I spawned write-ups or not on each individual film has varied, what it does serve is to track the trajectory of the series, to follow certain narrative threads, concepts and plot points through the series.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a series I should’ve done earlier. There is a a slasher trinity in 80s, it just stands as a fact whether I like it or not. I’d peg the Nightmare on Elm Street series 3rd overall, and I still do having seen it all. Essentially, what it boils down to is that it’s a great, great concept that’s never executed to it maximum effectiveness.

One issue that always plagued the series as a whole is the rendition of Freddy Krueger. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a film which does great things with simulacrum and reflexivity, there is a great joke where Heather Langenkamp (playing herself) is confiding in Robert Englund (also playing himself) that she’s having nightmares about Freddy. Englund responds something to the extent of “What, like, me as Freddy?” Heather responds, “No, scarier.”

It’s a wonderfully perceptive joke by Craven. Over the course of the original series, Craven only is involved in the first two, Freddy becomes more frequently a vehicle for one-liners and clownishness. It ends up being the situation, and whether or not we have any sympathy or identification with the characters, that determines whether or not we’re involved. Freddy does have an arc in the series, which is gravitates towards comedy. Jason and Michael Myers stay virtually the same, we may learn more about them, but they as symbols do not change; they don’t speak, they rarely if ever show their face and they haunt in their same way.

Perhaps the best thing about the Nightmare series consistently is that it does come of with very creative ways to have Freddy attack anew, or to explore a new aspect of the Dream paradigm. In a similar manner to the Children of the Corn series, the second Nightmare film is perhaps the most unfortunate and furthest removed from the intentions of the tropes established in the first. In this one, Freddy is able to lodge himself in his victim’s mind in his sleep and he bursts forth with a body anew whenever he takes over. It’s a symbiotic, quasi-Dark Half oddness that doesn’t befit the rest of the series.

Similar to the Halloween series which follows Jamie Lloyd for a few films, there are the Alice Johnson movies in this series. Some under-served ideas occur in her films in both Dream Master and The Dream Child wherein you have very interesting concepts that don’t get the kind of films that live up to how fascinating the ideas folded into it are.

Aside from New Nightmare, which flips the script literally, Dream Warriors is the best new ground covered. It reintroduces Nancy years later in a pretty great evolution of her character becoming a mental health professional with a unique insight to her young patients’ nightmares.

Now, as I mentioned above, in ranking the iconic 80s-started series, I put Halloween above Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I would do so anyway, but having the two other series involved in the farce that is Freddy vs. Jason doesn’t help. And, of course, the way that film ends, even taking it for what it is, didn’t please me in the slightest.

So, the concept is great and was original upon its inception. In horror movies the “it was only a dream” escape was always a cop out. Here, in this series, there’s nothing more dangerous than dreaming. It’s not only a dream. That above all is most refreshing.

Now, this film, like the other two iconic franchises of the 80s, has been re-imagiend for the 21st century. I already wrote plenty about it in my initial review, but it did find a new avenue to make sleep attack when you least expect it. It was also a set-up part one that could’ve been improved upon in part two. However, the good news/bad news is that apparently the pie is split too many ways to make a sequel financially desirable; so for the time being Freddy’s dead anew. If and when he’s resuscitated let’s hope his persona leans towards the remake, and that the film makes no apologies for his villainy and the dream concepts are fully enforced.

61 Days of Halloween: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

A Nightmare on Elm Street shares one, and likely only one, distinction with the film The Perfect Game. That distinction is that it excelled, for the most part, in elements that were new and unique to it and botched what it attempted to recreate. In the latter the recreations were from other sports films, in the former the recreations were from the original version of the film.

Perhaps the best thing this film has to offer is that it seemingly breaks new ground in belief in the horror film. One of the most tired clichés in the horror film is the fact that in the face of overwhelming evidence some characters just flat out refuse to believe that there’s something out of the ordinary happening, or as Buffalo Springfield would say “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Very quickly someone does believe the theory that it’s a nightmare come true. The majority do not believe right away but at least someone does, laying the foundation for the rest of the dominoes to fall.

What this film does casting-wise is unusual, it seems to subscribe to the theory of “Put your worst foot forward and kill it,” meaning that the first two characters focused on and killed (Kellen Lutz as Dean and Katie Fowles as Kris) are the worst actors in the film and thankfully those who receive the majority of the focus are progressively better.

Another positive is Kyle Gallner who carries this film in similar fashion to how he carried The Haunting in Connecticut. His sidekick Rooney Mara is also quite capable and a good sidekick in the film.

So, here comes a mandatory talking point: the CG. Most of the time it’s not great, not great at all. One of the things this film tried to recreate digitally was Freddy stretching through the wall. However, who would possibly want to get that in the can on set by using latex like they did in the 80s? Let’s spend money and use CG so Freddy can squirm all serpentine behind the wall and have it look totally bogus. Yes, bogus. I had to revert to 80s slang to communicate the ineffectiveness of the non-practical technique. Even when the CG was good, like when Kris could no longer fight that she was dreaming and the classroom around her exploded into ash, it only aided the film in going more over-the-top than it needed too.

The major knocks against this film will follow, and again, it’s a shame that they are big and many because it wastes a new interpretation of a now classic character. By having a new actor fill the role of Krueger in such a different way it proves that the character does have as much elasticity and room for creativity as the Joker in Batman. Jackie Earle Haley plays Freddy in a much more straightforward manner and less comedically than Robert Englund, making him more effective in this viewer’s opinion. His performance aside there were sadly some character issues with Krueger.

This film, while it does try to make Freddy a more straightforward and scary version than in the past – most noticeably by giving him a more realistically burned appearance than his prior incarnation, managed to both soften and coarsen him simultaneously. The coarsening was in his dialogue and mainly his diction. It’s a more foul-mouthed, blunt and disgusting Freddy. Apparently, his being a child molester isn’t enough anymore and to push the envelope he has to talk about it some. The way in which he was softened, however, is that he is only now, in death, a killer. His victims were all allowed to live. What was wrong with having him be a ghost-like entity who was still seeking to wreak havoc because he’d been killed by a mob is beyond me. The fact that while alive he didn’t kill one of the children he harmed does give Freddy more motivation, but we’re not dealing with the most plausible concept to begin with so that justification hardly needs addressing and does create a logic flaw in the past, mainly being why would a psychopath think the kids wouldn’t talk?

While there is more to Freddy’s back-story, which is new and good to see because it was a compelling and chilling part of the tale, it created and contributed to the number of issues with logic this film has. Examples of logic flaws include: Nancy at one point sings the “Freddy Song” yet never really follows it up or wonders why she knows it, yet she has repressed other kinds of memories, so what purpose does it serve? Jesse, aptly played by Thomas Dekker, is arrested way too quickly it’s almost like a Reichstag fire situation and aside from lacking credibility it hurts the story. The line “Who can remember being five?” stands out as being quite lazy on a few accounts, firstly, it’s clear Dr. Holbrook (Connie Britton) is hiding something and is not pressed about it and, second, even if I buy that these kids all repressed memories of what happened to them (which is easy to believe), the film also wants me to believe they all stayed in the same town and now almost all go to the same high school and don’t remember having known each other? Also, while the factoid about insomniacs experiencing micro-naps is a good touch and an added suspense element, as then one won’t realize they’re dreaming, it’s repeated ad nauseum in dialogue to make sure we remember the fact. Similarly, the allusion to the Pied Piper of Hamelin is duly noted but has no effect whatsoever on the story and is clumsily done. If the reference was to be fit in why not have Krueger read it to the kids?

Perhaps the biggest logic flaw, which is also the biggest argument for the fact that for some reason they also sought to soften Krueger, is the fact that at one point Quentin (Gallner) doubts Krueger’s guilt. Quentin’s contention is that it’s mass hysteria and they all made it up and were instantly believed, which in a post-McMartin Trial world is a legitimate enough point to address as it wouldn’t be the first false accusation of its kind. The problem is that there is no moment of decision for the character and it’s not even debated it shifts immediately from “this happened” to “we lied” with nothing in between. And only their continued investigation into how to rid themselves of Krueger proves otherwise.

So, here you have a film in which not only is Krueger not a murderer until after his death but you also have his victims believing that he may not have been guilty in the first place. It is not something that increases his villainy. What then is the point of having his absolute evil doubted? Is it armchair psychological reassurance to those who identify, however loosely, with Krueger that it’s OK because he’s not that bad? It seems unlikely but whether people want to admit it or not there is some level of identification felt with an antagonist. As Hitchcock and Truffaut discuss in an interview talking about Psycho there is a degree of that identification in that film and hence a slasher film such that the longer a franchise goes the more the villain is the star and the less you want to see him toppled. Ultimately, it just seems like another unusual decision which muddles the film.

Putting a more human face on Fred Krueger does not make him scarier. Having Jackie Earle Haley play him and not Robert Englund does but all of that is rendered nearly pointless by the rewrite of the character.

An examination of the back-story of A Nightmare on Elm Street was something I wanted to see. What it had the potential of is to intensify the fear because you more readily understand the evil. What should be sought from a more intimate portrait of the cinematic psychopath is not a softer, cuddlier interpretation of what it is he did, by having it be doubted and thus stripping it of its visceral impact, but a closer examination of it.

This very type of close examination was exactly what the Halloween remake did succeed in. It may or may not have crossed every T and dotted every I with regards to why Michael Myers became the way he was but it gave you a true, no-holds-barred glimpse of who he was before he was legend. It didn’t rewrite a history it enhanced a history, and that is what this film had the opportunity to do but it failed.


3/10

Rewind Commentary- A Home Video Trend I Hope to See Continue

The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century Fox)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy! And in this one it’s something I haven’t seen followed through.

Recently The Day the Earth Stood Still, the remake, was released on DVD. I did not see the movie. It was one of those instances where I saw no need for the film to be rehashed. How the work of the fantastic Robert Wise could be modernized or improved upon was something I never understood.

How an intelligent science fiction classic could be turned into something that looked like Independence Day turned my stomach. It follows a pattern in film and society, which I will likely comment further on in upcoming columns, that what exists just isn’t good enough. The permanency of film, which I think is part of its beauty, just doesn’t cut it. People don’t want to see The Day the Earth Stood Still from the 50s…or maybe there is hope. Maybe we’re just not discerning and we’ll see whatever slop the studios throw in front of us.

In releasing its DVD of the remake Fox has included, at no additional charge, a copy of the classic version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. This is a marketing strategy I could deal with, and knowing this is part of the scheme ahead of time I might not be as averse to the rash of remakes.

Now don’t get me wrong I don’t believe there’s altruistic intent in this move. They want to appease disgruntled fans and try to sell DVDs. Why not have it both ways though? Why not always do this? If you’re going to remake, update, re-imagine, reboot (call it what you will) a classic and introduce a new audience to it, raking in a ton of cash regardless, why not show them where the idea came from. After all as a studio, Fox in this case, both films are your product, so why not promote both? As a studio you are not a Johnny Come-Lately looking to hock electronics for the ADD generation you have a veritable arsenal of product ready-made at your disposal so put it out there, enlightening people on film history and commerce can go hand-in-hand just look at Turner’s Forbidden Hollywood deal with Warner. These are films that only really have historical relevance but are now exposed, packaged and available for purchase.

Remakes won’t stop but at least they can start to serve some purpose aside from just generating income from a public unaware or unexposed to the source material. Hopefully, this title won’t be the last to be packaged this way.

5 Reasons the Suspiria Remake May Not Be The Worst Thing in the History of the Universe

Suspiria (International Classics)

I am not a proponent of remakes in general and certainly am not a fan of the idea of a Suspiria remake, however, in light of recent information I am more positive than I was.

5. Possibility of Reviving A Classic

A common fear with a remake is that the original will be replaced with Suspiria it will likely not be the case. Aside from horror buffs you hardly every heard mention of this film before, when news of the remake first broke people are talking about Argento’s version more than ever before and good or bad the release of the remake will likely revive interest in viewing the original.

4. The Road Less Traveled Theory

Another reason this film may not be such a bad thing is something I’m calling The Road Less Traveled Theory, meaning that in remakes people always seem to be wary of seeing iconic scenes re-interpreted, likely the fault of the Psycho remake. I have reason to believe the story will be updated somewhat and the film is one of such intricacies that there are other avenues to explore and other ways to portray things and it’ll likely look like a very different movie.

3. Natalie Portman

Initial Reports way back when, speculated she might be in the running for the film, yet she stands sort of as a symbol of the positive casting possibilities this film has. Portman, or someone like her, is a positive because I have a feeling based on the inherent tension of Suspiria, plus the fact that David Gordon Green always gives his actors something to sink their teeth into, we should see her (whomever she may be) best.

2. David Gordon Green

You have at the helm of this project a man who has not only directed such diverse ventures as Undertow, Pineapple Express and The Sitter but also someone who is writing the adaptation. So you have not the puppet of some studio, I don’t think Green has yet been accused of that but a man fully invested in bringing his vision of this tale to the screen. Whether or not you like the adaptation presented is another thing entirely but it should be a focused and skillful interpretation of the story.

1. Argento’s Blessing

Up until recently this project had proceeded through pre-production stages without talking to Dario Argento and beyond not getting a seal of approval they hadn’t officially been granted the rights of adaptation, which is a hairy situation to be in. Now Argento has conceded because he has come around to the viewpoint that he is “convinced that his movie is a masterpiece and can’t be overshadowed.”

Which is a fair enough point. Why people get up in arms about remakes is usually due to the “How Dare You” syndrome we fall victim to when hearing about it. Indeed, there has been a rash of remakes of films that can’t be topped recently but in truth they, and similarly sequels, do not truly detract from the original inherently, it is our perception that skews. Similarly, if we really were so sick of all these retreads we would stay away en masse. While those who don’t know any better will flock out to see these films, the fact of the matter is the information is out there to be had so if you’re going to see a remake at least see it knowingly. The internet is a great thing sometimes.
 
These are the reasons I am not as scared as I once was. Fingers crossed.

Review- Contraband

Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster in Contraband (Universal)

In the first incarnation of the Best Foreign Film Awards for the BAMs one of the winners was The Sea, a film from Iceland. While I try to keep tabs on former winners it does get harder as the years go on and the new winners accumulate. Combine that with the fact that Baltasar Kormákur, the director of the aforementioned film, continued to work in Iceland, a country that doesn’t always achieve international recognition and distribution, one could see how I lost track of him but that one film with its sharp direction, palpable drama and believable performances stayed with me. So when I saw his name on the opening credits of Contraband, which is itself an American remake of an Icelandic film, I was perhaps a little more hopeful than I otherwise would’ve been and I was not disappointed.

Contraband indeed does take a lot of familiar elements: an ex-con turned legit doing “one last job” (until the potential sequel) to protect his family because his brother-in-law got in over his head. The set-up is one we’ve seen but the film language and interpretation is a bit more artistic than one might expect. The precise relationship of the characters does not reveal itself right away, concepts that might be unknown to the audience are introduced then explained later, certain continuity is assumed therefore less-than-essential elements might be omitted and bother completists. It is this kind of telling that is almost required of a story that otherwise doesn’t offer much in the way of innovation.

One of the places wherein this film really does excel is in the portrayal of its villain both in the scripting of the film and in his interpretation. Briggs is not only ruthless and reckless but very well realized by Giovanni Ribisi. In this modern era there seem to be fewer black-and-white characters than before and a lot of navigating in the gray areas of humanity, which can be fine but it’s a lot more nebulous and difficult to get through it. Therefore to have a character who has no obvious redeeming qualities or seemingly no complexity is practically verboten but a good actor relishes this challenge. It can allow the actor to do a lot of work on the character’s story that could lead to his mannerisms and so on. I’m not saying Ribisi is method, I can’t confirm or deny but that what I am saying is a character so seemingly simple free of being judged can be a liberating experience and allow an actor to bring more than expected to a part. One way or another Ribisi goes above and beyond here and is a big reason this film works.

It seems every so often some way or somehow I’m reminded that Mark Wahlberg started in music and I do need to be reminded. Not only am I now accustomed to seeing him as an actor but have liked quite a few things he’s done. I think the key is creating a screen persona. He has one and usually he finds himself in films not too different than this and he also helps makes this film happen. Some action films need to work to have you believe the star fits in the milieu or builds up the world of the character and then the character but Wahlberg due to his persona and the types of characters he plays naturally fits therefore the film’s world and character can be discovered simultaneously. He always makes his characters identifiable and likable in spite of their flaws.

The supporting cast highlighted by Kate Beckinsale as the knowing yet vulnerable and worried wife, then there’s Ben Foster who’s very nuanced and Caleb Landry Jones who seems to be carving out his own niche as the engaging yet troubled youth.

Two other things that are a boon to this film are: it has a very good twist that propels it to a dramatic conclusion and it depicts an interesting and oft unexplored world of smuggling on ocean faring vessels. The conclusion gets quite dramatic and actually does leave you wondering how things will work out in the end.

The end did make me wonder how things turn out in the Icelandic version, however, that didn’t really adversely affect this film. What did was in the Panamanian episode there’s really the only pacing issue of the film and our leads are forced into a situation where they become passive observers, which makes that section quite tedious. That and a few other willful suspensions of disbelief are all that hold it back.

Despite its second act stumbles Contraband is a slightly elevated genre film with some good surprises in store and a nicely appointed denouement that should be a crowd pleaser.

7/10

Review- Fright Night (2011)

Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin in Fright Night (DreamWorks/Disney)

Here’s another case of full disclosure is necessary, there are two things that bear mentioning with regards to Fright Night: first, I am in no way a fan of the original Fright Night, it has some strong elements but overall I was not entertained in the least. Therefore, I walked into this version with an open mind as it with this remake I actually felt there was a need for it.

This incarnation of Fright Night does absolutely wonderful things with the aspect of disbelief in the horror genre. Typically and you get very weary of this if you’re a fan of the genre. You are therefore used a long struggle were characters doubt the supernatural elements of the story. The modern notion respects the audience enough and is just reflexive enough that this part of the story is quickly addressed but sped through. Never has it been so quickly and intelligently handled as in this film.

This, of course, lends itself to much comedy. Comedy in a horror film can be a precarious thing. Many people do need that release valve for their nervous energy but many horror films veer too heavily towards comedy. This one does something odd in as much as it keeps the horror subsumed and allows it to bubble to to the surface and take over when necessary.

Not to say that those who like their horror in a more classical style will necessarily walk away disappointed from this film. You get in this film very well-done gore and perhaps what I was most grateful for good, old fashioned scary vampires. The horror elements are there in spades.

Another way in which this film is a kind of throwback is that its a horror property that was able to attract talent to it. First, you have your protagonist in Anton Yelchin, who may not be a household name yet but has certainly done his fair share of films and should be recognizable to most. You also have the ever-versatile Toni Collette as his mother. Then there’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse as his friend. Then perhaps the most important duo is the vampire (Colin Farrell) and the vampire hunter (David Tennant).

It’s truly a shame that the 3D backlash came at a time when good films with effective 3D work was released. This is one of them. Yes, there is an over-saturation of 3D but this film should not have fallen victim to our general malaise with it.

The pace of this film as intimated earlier is fantastic. Due to the fact that it deals with the niceties quickly, effectively with great dialogue it allows the film to move quite quickly and still manages to build suspense while doing so. There are quite a few memorable sequences in this film.

It’s quite easy to look at Fright Night and say “Oh, look, another remake and another vampire movie at the same time,” however, this one gives both a good name and is worth seeing.

9/10

Review- Scream 4

Emma Roberts in Scream 4 (Dimension)

Scream has always been, and will always be, perhaps the most reflexive of all properties. You can call it self-referential, meta or reflexive, whatever you want that’s what it is and it’s not about to change and what’s better is that it’s not about to start apologizing for it. So that much at least is a given and should be expected and now to see how it operates within that milieu is another story entirely. I, for one, believe it does very well there.

The horror genre is living a very interesting time and we all know what ancient Chinese curses say about those. It like many other genres in film are embroiled in a perceived plague of sequels, remakes and what have you. The inherent value or lack thereof of said trend is not in question here it just is a fact. Similarly, the genre may be more recognized and known than it ever has been. Whether loved or reviled almost any horror property now is scrutinized and analyzed to the nth degree. Attendance at conventions just keeps rising. Even if you’re not a certified aficionado you have at least enough familiarity to watch this film and get what they’re driving at, regardless of if you like where it’s going.

That is said to postulate this theory: that the rules of the horror genre and whether or not you know them aren’t enough to breathe life to a new Scream. Another hook is necessary and aside from always offering commentary on the genre, which it perhaps has never done so well as it does in this film, it needs a topical hinge to cling to, as it kind of always has in the past as well. It finds that as well in this installment and that’s what elevates it just above an enjoyable piece of escapist entertainment.

This film escapes many of the trappings that other horror films fall prey to almost by definition. The cast is rock solid top to bottom and they really help pull you into the tale, as much as you can be pulled in by a film that constantly reminds you that you are watching a film, however, that has always been the most ingenious thing about the series is that the audience is perhaps never more aware of the fact that they’re watching a film than when watching a horror film so this franchise addresses that head on each and every time and shifts it out of the equation.

What this also does is de-emphasize the whodunit aspect of the narrative, which is kind of old hat in any and all films, such that you don’t see it as much anymore, but it is a staple of this series as well. Whether or not you crack the identity of the new Ghost Face is rather irrelevant in the end because after the who always comes the why and as I may have intimated above I absolutely love the why. I will not divulge that as it might inadvertently give away the who but a good motive is also very important and this film does have that indeed.

The comedic aspect of this film is also alive in full force. It is always a bit like playing with fire when trying to balance out the amount of comedy that needs to be inserted into a horror film but the balance is struck here at least to an extent. It’s there and balanced with the gory scenes enough such that you’re never jarred by the lack or pervasiveness of it. It’s omnipresence may dissipate some of the tension but not much of the enjoyment.

The only parts wherein the film falls flat is when it does stupid horror movie things. This being two instances where you’re left wondering how someone is not yet dead. It’s all well and good to have characters act stupid in the Stab vignettes so it gives you something to talk about but to fall into a tedious cliché within your actual narrative is a bit bothersome.

All told, however, Scream 4 is a very enjoyable film on a number of levels, take your pick: If you’re squeamish at the sight of blood; it’s got plenty of that and it looks great too (easily overcoming one of my pet peeves), if you like comedy there are some great jokes in there (My favorite being where the likelihood of Courteney Cox’s marriage is called into question) and if you like a little social commentary thrown in with whatever you’re watching it’s got that too.

8/10

Two for Tuesday #2

So for this Two for Tuesday I decided to switch things up because after all variety is the spice of life, or so they say. Rather than continuing the Oscar theme, and sparing my DVR, I decided to finally give a few DVDs I picked up over the summer a chance.

Both of them are horror films. One is called Boogeyman and the other is Shutter. As further proof that there’s not that much at all in a name the former is much better than the latter.

Boogeyman

Barry Watson in Boogeyman (Columbia Pictures)

On the surface you may think there’s nothing much to Boogeyman. It’s a tale we’ve all more or less heard, mostly through oral tradition. Some of us horror aficionados have even read Stephen King’s rather brilliant rendition of the legend.

This film does have some surprises in store, however. Not the least of which is the performance of Barry Watson. Now I was not all that familiar with Watson’s work other than his time on 7th Heaven. I came away from this film quite impressed with him indeed. It’s a quiet role that dominates the film and he handles it easily. He is convincingly scared without ever going over the top, much of his dialogue is in whispers but it never gets annoying and he’s the kind of everyman that can really transport you into a horror film.

It can be easy for a horror film to have a really effective teasing scene but it’s far more rare for that scene to have such a direct correlation to the rest of the film but it gets more surprising. The villain, the literal Boogeyman in this case, is hardly ever seen for 80-90% of the film playing into the doubt of his existence and actually amping up how scary this film can be. I mean literally absent not you don’t see its face I mean most of the time you see nothing which is an amazing feat.

Time and space are played with quite effectively, there is also what in another film would be a major twist moved up and not made the center of attention which is refreshing. While not original there is also a play on missing children in this film, which is always an effective angle for a horror film.

The cinematography both in terms of lighting and framing and how it shoots into the edit is brilliant. Kudos to Bobby Bukowski, a name I think I’d like to get better acquainted with.

With all this goodness mounting still there was a niggling doubt building. The question that kept bugging me was: “Why have I never heard of this movie?” I answered that question and much to my chagrin had my speculation confirmed.

Now some, Stephen King, included will cite the revelation of He Who Walks Behind the Rows as the downfall of Children of the Corn, while I can’t argue that the effects are great I still like them in a cheesy 80s kind of way and love the film. Here not so much. After so much that went right the effects totally drop the ball and actually made me giggle a few times which is tragic because there were genuine scares to be had before.

To think with just a halfway decent practical makeup job on the Boogeyman it could’ve been something special.

Shutter

Joshua Jackson and Megumi Okina in Shutter (20th Century Fox)

For everything that Boogeyman did right and then blew in the ending, Shutter pretty much did all those things wrong right off the bat and then compounded with a stupid ending. The giggle factor for me starts right at the beginning shortly after the inciting incident.

While Boogeyman is a quiet and mostly very intelligent film with commendable performances by the cast Shutter is louder, dumber and poorly acted through a lot of it.

Now I can say I’ve seen enough Asian horror to cast aspersions on an entire continent’s approach to a genre but I sure as hell have had enough of our pale imitations both via remake and rip-off. There always ends up being more unintentional comedy than an actual fear factor.

There is a delicate balance in horror films: too much build up or too much action, especially if its repetitive, is likely to bore an audience. This film falls into the latter category. For the longest time we see “spirit photos,” which is an oft-used trick in supernatural films then there is the girl herself and we just see her incessantly and it takes next to forever for her to actually do anything.

As more details unravel about her identity and motivation things just get progressively dumber and uninteresting instead of getting smarter and more engrossing, again the antithesis of the previous film.

I won’t spoil the ending but it’s the kind that if you liked the film you love it because of how it concludes. If you hated it before you’ll loathe it after its through.

Review- Wild Target

Bill Nighy in Wild Target (Magic Light Pictures)

Wild Target in many ways epitomizes a British comedy and simultaneously epitomizes the Briton take on genre-crossing tales. The comedy is, make no mistake, ever-present throughout the course of this film making it a brilliantly farcical tale. The farce is perhaps the most difficult comedy sub-genre to pull off because it relies so heavily on the preposterous lampooning of what we typically in life or in film take seriously or for granted.

While this film excels far more easily in its comedic elements than it does as an action-thriller, those elements are there and consistent. The edit may be a little unbalanced and a cross-cut or two to the organized crime figures on the chase may be a little late it still does work.

Yet what makes this film most interesting is the interplay of the three main characters. The lead, Victor Maynard, is played wonderfully by Bill Nighy [A performance which after this writing I would honor as the Best of the Year.] This is truly a fantastic character study. We slowly see this man become the person he was longing to be, as in the beginning he imagines dinner conversation and then later on enacts it but he is also a confused man. He is so defined by being a hitman he doesn’t know himself and questions everything; even his sexuality.

The confrontation of that fact leads to one of the funniest and most complex jokes in the film, which can be taken as a triple entendre. That is not a typo watch it and consider the exchange carefully and you’ll see what I mean.

Which leads us to the performance of Rupert Grint. While he is not breaking the mold that made him famous in this part, as he has in others, it is definitely a more grown-up and comedic interpretation thereof and a wonderful counterpoint to the tension of Maynard and Rose (Emily Blunt).

Last but certainly not least is Emily Blunt as Rose who carries off a rather complex character with relative ease and makes her fully realized. She is never predictable and real and furthermore complicates Maynard’s life brilliantly.

Wild Target manages to balance the thrill of the chase and comedic situations and the mix is rather easy indeed. It eases you in familiarizing you both with the status quo of Maynard and Rose and then showing you how their fates will intertwine.

When a film opens with a hit in which the hitman may be betrayed by a parrot and the hitman places his silencer against its head, you should know what you’re in for.  The fact that they argue makes nearly Monty Python-esque. What proceeds from there is a deliriously good time.

9/10

Wild Target will be released on video tomorrow (2/8/11)