Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Suzanne Collins’ smash novel The Hunger Games isn’t your normal young adult reading material. Dystopian future, corrupt government, oppressive forces, twisted media culture, and then there’s the whole inhumane concept of children murdering each other for sport. The book trilogy has been consumed by millions of readers, young and old, and inspired rabid devotion reminiscent of other successful publishing franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter. Yes, Battle Royale fans, the premise is not original, but Collins’ book could just as well cite inspiration from The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, or even an Outer Limits episode known as “Fun and Games.” Producers are hoping those legions of fans will turn up in droves and start a new lucrative film franchise. Reliably squishy filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) was tapped to shepherd the book to the big screen. The Hunger Games movie doesn’t commit any major blunders to screw up a good story, which is good enough for many.

Set in a distant future, the ashes of North America have given way to the country of Panem. It is lead by a Capitol government and ringed by 12 mostly poor districts. Every year the Capitol commemorates the failed revolution of the districts by holding the nation’s favorite televised sport, the Hunger Games. Each district holds a reaping, which randomly draws one boy and one girl aged 12-18 years. These lucky chosen children, known as tributes, are then whisked to the Capitol where they will be placed into an arena and fight to the death. 24 tributes go in and there can be only one winner. In the outlying District 12, day-to-day life is a struggle, and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is burdened with providing for her family. She hunts illegally to provide food for her family and to trade for goods that they need. She’s excellent with a bow and arrow. Her hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), suggests that they could run away. “We’d never make it more than five miles,” Katniss reasons. The two of them have too many responsibilities to ignore. Then Reaping Day comes, and Katniss’ 12-year-old younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen as the female tribute. Katniss volunteers to take her place, saving her sister, but throwing herself into a sport where the odds will not be in her favor. Joining Katniss as the male tribute is Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son who has some history with Katniss.

The tributes are paired with mentors, the oblivious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and former District 12 Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) whose helpfulness is tempered by the fact that he’s drunk often. He advises his newest tributes that they must make the audience like them to earn sponsors, people willing to pay big money to supply the tributes necessary supplies in the middle of the game. The Capitol is full of lush excess, the people donned in cartoonish and colorful garb. Katniss is dolled up and paraded around. She showcases her skills to the Game makers, who will give each tribute a rating that bettors will use. She’s interviewed by TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) to make an impression. While with Caesar, Peeta reveals that there is a girl he’s had a crush on back home for the longest time – Katniss. The star-crossed lover angle hooks the audience and immediately transforms the dynamic of the games. Katniss is upset, but Haymitch rationalizes that Peeta’s confession has made them more marketable.

Then the dreaded day arrives and the 24 tributes are gathered up, injected with tracking devices, and launched into the outdoor arena to fight to the death. Katniss’ biggest threats will be the tributes from District 1, Glimmer (Leven Rambin) and Marvel (Jack Quaid), and District 2, Clove (Isabelle Fuhman) and Cato (Alexander Lutig). These tributes have trained their whole lives in the deadly arts so that they could volunteer to enter the games, hence why they are dubbed the Career tributes. And they usually win. Once the games begin, Katniss must survive the Careers, whatever surprises the Game makers have, the elements, and win over the affections of the TV audience. Let the games begin.

Firstly, fans can breathe a sigh of relief because The Hunger Games movie is a mostly successful venture brought to visual life. The legions of Collins’ fans celebrating the movie of their beloved book will mostly be satisfied. Collins’ story is still a good story no matter the medium. It establishes its alternative world and the stakes quickly and then it’s off to the killing fields. This is dark and disturbing stuff, far darker than even the darkest days of Harry Potter, and fans will be relived that the movie does not go soft. It’s not the exploitation-vehicle that Battle Royale was. This is trying to tell a story and not revel in the geysers of teenage bloodshed. This is a movie that satirizes reality TV and media culture as much class warfare. Katniss is primed and prepped to manufacture an impressionable image to TV audiences. It’s all about calculation, image control, and the manipulations of the media and audience to produce a star. Here’s a world where the 1% literally celebrate and toast the deaths of the 99%. Here’s a world that takes it cues from the Romans concerning spectator sports. I do wish the movie had channeled more of the book’s accusatory tone against the Capitol citizens, the silent majority complicit in villainy. And of course it was Collins’ point that we, too, the audience could be accountable in our own YA bloodlust.

This is a story that grabs you and rarely lets go, centered on a heroine that is refreshingly a strong female role model for girls. Bella Swan has nothing on Katniss Everdeen. Here is a heroine that is proactive, resourceful, resolute, compassionate, and she doesn’t need a man to complete her. Sorry Ms. Swan, but Katniss has a lot more important things on her mind than getting a boyfriend. She’s got to provide for her impoverished family and shoulder plenty of responsibility, and that’s before she’s plucked into a death sport. In short, Bella Swan sucks. Katniss Everdeen rules 4-ever.

Since the book was written in first person, we were inside Katniss’ head the whole time. There are disadvantages of leaving that POV, namely that Katniss’ survival skills and cunning can be brushed over. She’s not just fighting the other tributes, she’s trying to think how best to play certain moments, how to appeal to the viewers at home. During the games, the movie jumps back and forth between the action and what I’d like to call Mission Control from Hell, the game makers HQ. This is a smart move that provides a greater antagonistic sense with the book’s unseen game makers. The exposition, mostly handled by Tucci as color commentary throughout the games, is presented in a way that doesn’t feel clunky. I also enjoyed the two sit-downs we get with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of the Capitol, who sees early on the danger of Katniss. He explains that the games are meant to give hope to the poor citizens. “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear. A little hope is good. A lot of hope is not,” he explains while pruning flowers. It’s nice to have a villain who understands the calculations needed for a proper oppression. It’s also nice to see Sutherland sink his teeth into a role that will only get more enjoyably evil as the films progress. I felt that the tracker jacker sequence, the interviews with Caesar, and the time in the caves were the best-adapted sequences.

Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) is a star, pure and simple. She was the perfect choice to play Katniss Everdeen. The Oscar-nominated young actress brings great steely determination and grit to the Girl on Fire. Katniss isn’t supposed to be a teenage warrior (that would be the Careers), even though she is thrust into that role. She doesn’t celebrate killing. This is not fun for her. Lawrence can play an array of emotions silently, deftly, like her hoarse, wild panic at Prim being chosen, her shell-shocked disorientation at going into the games, her quiet fury at her irresponsible mother and others like the game makers, her budding warmth for Peeta while he rubs a salve over her facial cut. Pages of description can be consolidated in just one pensive, conflicted expression on Lawrence’s lovely face. Lawrence is the heart of the movie and a tremendous presence to ground our sympathy and emotions.

Katniss is a dangerous competitor but she’s also vulnerable. She’s emotionally guarded and thrust into a situation where she has to “pretend” to be in love. Now the romance angle, and the self-awareness on Katniss’ part to give a good show, was a far bigger storyline in the book. In the book, she begins by playing a part and by the end doesn’t know if her feelings are false or genuine. It’s strange that in the movie their this-is-love kiss, meant to make the audience swoon on Katniss’ part, is followed up with nothing but hugs. Maybe the filmmakers thought a romantic angle was in poor taste given the kill-or-be-killed scenario, except that the romance angle is what keeps Katniss and Peeta alive. Want to know the best way to irk a Hunger Games fan? Start comparing the complicated romantic triangle of Peeta and Gale to dismissive terms like Team Jacob and Team Edward.

The supporting cast performs ably, some better than others. Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) is given the most material to work with. He’s a nice kid, strong, but worried about his humanity, and the filmmakers never portray him as anything close to a badass or a helpless baby. Hutcherson shines in the moments where he comes clean with his emotions, like admitting that he has no chance of winning (his mom thinks so too). Peeta’s much easier at charm than bravado, and Hutcherson is a charming guy. I think Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) actually gives the best performance, short of our lead heroine, as the maniacally bent Effie Trinket. Half the performance is the garish outfits, wigs, and makeup, but Banks nails the affluent insensitivity and ignorance of her character. Her forced enthusiasm is good for a few laughs. Harrelson (Zombieland) gives hints about the demons behind his character, a man who has to watch a pair of children under his tutelage die every year as his “prize” for winning. He’s a colorful character in a movie filled with colorful characters, but his sauced sarcasm can sting. Tucci (Easy A) hams it up with great pleasure as the smarmy, inauthentic, over-the-top TV host, Caesar Flickerman. They dolled up actor Toby Jones (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) in a bouffant wig and sit him beside Caesar for commentary, but, and I literally counted, he has three lines where he speaks onscreen. Still, I love his oily voice as the games’ announcer.

The movie distills just about everything from the book, plot-wise, so the fans will be sure to see just about every plot event that they’ve developed a mental checklist for. However, this narrative approach, an attempt to satiate the fans that bristle when the movies of their favorite books deviate too much from the source material, blunts the impact of the material. I was astounded at how overwhelmingly rushed and hurried the movie is, spending little time on those variety of plot events, rarely allowing the movie enough room to breathe. With this brisk and brusque pacing, it stops the movie’s vitality. The context and history of important items and people feel clipped, becoming just set decoration. Ross has not done an adequate job of making his movie universe feel richly realized. The significance of the mockingjay, a symbol of perseverance under the oppression of the Capitol, is left unexplained. It just becomes a dinky pin that makes Katniss think about home. The ghoulish mutts have been turned into just a bunch of vicious dogs that eerily resemble the dog demons from Ghostbusters (actually, I’m relieved the mutts were toned down). The contrasts between the impoverished outer districts and the lavish Capitol denizens are nicely showcased thanks to luxurious and weird art direction and costume design; these people took fashion advice from Marie Antoinette and maybe their political outlooks as well (“Let them eat cake… or death”). There are also some passing moments of dark satire as far as the Capitol’s overall stance with the games, and their blasé attitude about the value of human life, though the movie could have and should have pushed harder with its class warfare.

The Hunger Games reminded me of the first two Harry Potter films where the producers crammed in all the plot points they felt fans wanted to see rather than just, you know, adapting it into a good movie. If they wanted to keep everything from the book, plot wise, then they should have followed their convictions and produced a three-hour movie. Imagine The Godfather being cut down to two hours and twenty minutes. Imagine rushing through all that drama. Now I’m not in any way comparing The Hunger Games to The Godfather in terms of quality, but movies need sufficient time to establish their worlds and develop characters. They need time to breathe. The fact that a 142-minute long movie doesn’t have time to breathe is plain inexcusable.

The characterization, beyond Katniss and Peeta, is extremely limited, and so when he deaths do occur the impact is minimal; only one tribute’s death is given time for mourning, and even this character’s death is limited due to superficial characterization and about two minutes of screen time. I’m not saying that every one of these 24 tributes needs a detailed back-story, but they’ve got to have some personality to them and the movie has to devote some time to develop that; good writing can tell a lot with little. Otherwise they just become somewhat recognizable faces and not characters. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’ stylist for the pre-game publicity in the Capitol, is reduced to being a bland companion. Let me single out the villains, our group of Career tributes. The movies have a long tradition of villains who aren’t given much characterization but are given personality. I need my bad guys to be given an opportunity to make an impression, and no, weapon distinction is not enough. With The Hunger Games, the bad guys just become a series of sneering faces, and these kids (Ludig, Rambin, Quaid, Fuhman) have got some good sneer faces. True, the movie’s entire twisted premise lays enough overwrought tragedy to the entire setup, turning children into killers, and President Snow is the ultimate villain, but the movie should be agonizing, terrifying, devastating, upsetting, and not merely inferential and rushed. I want to feel the deaths. Instead, the movie can’t even be bothered to briefly show the faces of the dead kids during the game’s daily death montage. There are all sorts of kids who were hired to be tributes from districts and I question if they ever got a second onscreen.

I also feel that Ross is, at times, completely wrong for this material. The man behind Pleasantville and Seabiscuit is not the first name you’d think of to tackle a dystopian sci-fi survival thriller built upon the premise of dead children. I almost wish they had hired Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers), an artist well versed in sci-fi spectacle and subversion. Ross’ misguided visual approach, borrowing a page from the Bourne franchise, can make it hard to enjoy the film. During the opening segment in District 12, as well as the games themselves, Ross will attempt to up the visceral ante with his bobbing handheld camera. Now I’m not one of the people who loudly decry the use of “shaky cam” during action sequences, but before the second minute was over, I turned to my friend and said, “I already hate the shaky cam.” There’s a difference between handheld camerawork, which has some jostle to it, and a deliberately inauthentic docu-drama approach that makes exaggerated and distracting camera bobbling. There are long segments of this movie that is nothing but shaky close-ups cut together. There’s a climactic battle atop a metal structure that is completely incomprehensible to follow. It’s all just a blur of flashes save for two wide shots to thankfully attempt to orient the viewer. When an audience can’t follow the action, it not only kills tension but it also kills investment. The docu-drama visual approach is completely wrong for this movie. When was the last time you saw a dystopian sci-fi movie that had a docu-drama aesthetic? Try never.

Likewise, to achieve the all-important PG-13 rating, Ross sanitizes the blood sport, utilizing lots of implied violence. The jangly aesthetic works for the duration of the race to the Cornucopia to start the games, as tributes turn a fight over supplies into a bloodbath, communicating the chaotic frenzy. I’m not clamoring for explicit carnage to get its message across, but just seeing children as far-off lifeless heaps is a disservice to the power of the story. Also, I don’t feel like Ross properly takes full advantage of the visual medium. Instead of being told, twice, about mines that will explode if any tribute steps off their platform before the conclusion of the countdown, let’s see it. Since half of these kids are about to become faceless corpses anyway, why can’t one of them lose their balance, fall out of the ring, and blow up? And then we cut to a nearby tribute dusted with pieces of dirt and blood, trying to keep their cool and failing. It would have kicked up the tension and shown the immediate danger that awaits. I don’t want the one-minute countdown to cut around the globe, seeing the different districts watching TV. I want that entire minute spent in the arena, hearing every second counted down, seeing every face of the tributes sick with anxiety and unease, gritting themselves for combat. I want to feel the same sense of doom that they do, not cut around the globe and then have the audio drop out. That’s a sorry way to start the games, even with a PG-13 mandate.

There are heavy expectations for The Hunger Games on all fronts, from studio execs to the millions of eager fans. I consider myself one of their legion. I voraciously read through the trilogy, getting hooked early, and have even helped teach the book as part of an American Literature curriculum. It’s a thrill to watch reluctant readers get excited about the book. The Hunger Games succeeds mostly as the pilot to an exciting film franchise. But having seen the Hunger Games movie twice in 14 hours, and being a huge fan of the book, here are my chief criticisms: the movie is far too rushed, speeding over so many plot points and characters, never getting time to breathe; nascent characterization for supporting characters; the context of so many things is missing; shaky cam overuse to the point of incomprehensible action sequences; dodgy CGI; not taking full advantage of visual medium; intensity a bit muted; and finally, a forgettable score. But, hey, good movie. It just frustrates me because it could have been a great movie, a searing, powerful, provocative, thrilling movie. Good movie will be good enough, especially when it makes more money opening weekend than the citizens of District 12 will ever see in their lifetimes. When you got a fan base as large as this series, the odds will usually be in your favor.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)

This lumpy, amiable shaggy dog story from the Duplass brothers is another earnest, warm-hearted comedy that marries their signature family dysfunction, mumblecore quirk to a larger, more mainstream setting. The Jeff (Jason Segel) in question is a 30-year-old slacker, who indeed lives at home, and awaits signs from the universe to guide his decision-making. Incidentally, his favorite movie we learn in a monologue set on a commode, is Signs. His older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is a selfish twit and embarks on a quest, with Jeff, to discover if his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. The boys mother (Susan Sarandon) also has a nice storyline where an anonymous admirer is sending her flirty instant messages at work. Watching her face light up as she processes being wanted, it’s a thing of beauty. The characters are all flawed, and for some they may be too annoying to sit through. The film has been accused of being aimless, but I was engaged with its plot, which kept ping-ponging from one cause to another effect scenario. The movie is really more a drama with some comedic asides, mainly due to Jeff’s stoner zen and Pat’s aggressive dickishness. Greer has an outstanding moment where she lets her character’s deep reservoir of unhappiness come out in a blinding moment of honesty, and it rang true to my ears. In fact, the entire movie feels true enough. And then it appears destiny reveals its master plan with an ending that makes your heart warm all over, championing Jeff’s mantra of optimism and interconnectedness. The simple, good-natured, sweet little movie is worth checking out.

Nate’s Grade: B

21 Jump Street (2012)

21 Jump Street ran on TV from 1987-1991 and is mainly known as serving as a launching pad for eventual mega movie star Johnny Depp… and Richard Greico too. Youthful looking police officers infiltrated high schools and tackled topical issues of the day (what snap bracelet goes best with my high-waisted jeans?). Why would anyone want to make this movie, let alone comic actor Jonah Hill? Surprising in just about every way, especially when it comes to overall quality, the 21 Jump Street movie is not just a great comedy but also a great movie. How the hell did this happen, Movie Gods?

Officer Schmidt (Hill) is smart but shrimpy (which is saying something considering how dangerous Hill’s weight has been before). Officer Jenko (Channing Tatum) is a stud but pretty dimwitted when it comes to tests. The two form a partnership and get assigned as bicycle cops, not exactly the position of command and authority they were expecting. After a few screw-ups, including failing to read a suspect his Miranda rights (“You… have the right… to be an attorney”), the duo gets bounced to an old undercover program at, you guessed it, 21 Jump Street. The pair is supposed to pose as high school students and find out who’s supplying teenagers a dangerous new club drug. Much has changed since Schmidt and Jenko were in high school together, and both of their profiles were accidentally swapped, meaning Jenko is given AP chemistry and the higher level classes, and Schmidt is given gym and acting courses, where he’s supposed to work his way into the popular circles. Molly (Brie Larson) is a gal in that popular inner circle and Schmidt struggles to accept that a pretty, smart, popular girl might actually “like like” him.

I knew I was in for something special when the movie itself lambastes the very idea of a 21 Jump Street movie, with the police chief (Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman) ridiculing the idea of unoriginal nitwits recycling something old that has name recognition and hoping the public will be too dumb to care. The movie beats the audience to the punch every time, mocking the absurdity of its own premise and plot points (many characters note how old Jenko appears). I should have expected more from screenwriter Michael Bacall (co-writer of the Scott Pilgrim movie adaptation) and especially from directors Phil Lord and Chris Hill, the same pair whose rambunctious comedic verve radiated from every frame of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and their brilliant short-lived animated MTV show, Clone High. This movie had me laughing a lot and had me laughing hard, doubling over, with-tears-in-my-eyes laughter at points. Dickson spouts, “Some kid overdoses on drugs. And because he’s white, people actually give a shit,” showing that a movie with a mind-blowing number of male genitalia jokes can provide a few shrewd jabs of social commentary. There’s a great bit where on their first day back in school, Jenko points out the various school cliques. Then he gets to a group of students in skinny jeans, thrift store clothes, and floppy hats, and he looks puzzled. “I don’t know what those kids are?” Ha, because hipsters didn’t exist back in his (my) day.

21 Jump Street is cheeky, rowdy, quick-witted and playful in the best sense of an action comedy. It’s got fish-out-of-water moments as the duo struggle to fit in with a different high school setting. The one-liners and riffs can be gut-busters, but the film does an even better job layering oddball gags (Korean Jesus), loony slapstick, fun but telling character moments (Schmidt not knowing how to end a prayer: “The end, right? ‘The end’?”), strong setups that have stronger payoffs (using the reading of Miranda rights as a genuine emotional climax), and an overall raucous, anarchic spirit.

Here’s one sequence in particular that shows off the film’s clever comedic chops. The film finds a way to satirize the tropes of action movies, particularly buddy cop movies, with such nimble precision. Schmidt and Jenko are on the run but their car chase keeps butting heads with the fabricated reality of Hollywood movie chases. For one, they keep finding themselves getting stuck in traffic on the highway. This forces them to have to keep abandoning cars and finding a new set of wheels ahead of the gridlock. Then, as the bad guys chase them down on motorcycles, the chase causes all sorts of chaotic collateral damage, including oil trucks riddled with bullet holes and dripping the flammable substance all over the road. Then one of the motorcycles skids into the flammable muck, and our heroes wince in preparation of the expected explosion, and then nothing happens. “Huh. I really thought that was going to explode,” one of them remarks casually. And this setup is repeated again, denying us the explosive equation that action movies have pummeled into our brains (car + any tap of force = humungous fireball), and there is a payoff to this comedic tweak on the cliché, and it is silly and terrifically funny. Plus, I haven’t even mentioned that both Schmidt and Jenko are dressed in silly outfits and begin their car chase in a driver’s ed car. This sequence is just one example of the anarchic, robust, and self-aware comedic attitude that the movie flaunts.

But more than being a hysterical action picture, 21 Jump Street works even better because at its core is a level of sweetness, a satisfying mixture of lewd and heart like the best Judd Apatow ventures. It’s a bromance of epic proportions even by buddy cop standards, the old school bromance vehicle of its day. The guys go back to high school and the movie’s bright switcheroo puts the characters in opposite social spheres, with Schmidt with the cool kids and Jenko struggling with the social misfits and bottom-dwellers, a.k.a. nerds. Of course the whole class assignment also shows the façade of being cool in high school. The movie could have mined this well-worn stereotypical class conflict with ease, but instead it decides to use its contrived scenario as a jumpstart for the guy’s emotional growth. The lessons may be simplistic (perils of ego, believe in yourself, teamwork, personal responsibility) but that doesn’t make them bad lessons, and the fact that the flick seriously uses covalent bonds as a metaphor, and does so in an almost poignant fashion, is worth applauding. The relationship between Schmidt and Jenko engages the audience, and we root for them even when they’re behaving like jerks. They’re misfits who are doubted and reprimanded, which make us hope for their eventual success even more. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t put them in opposing camps in high school. Schmidt was a dweeb and Jenko was a dumb jock, but that doesn’t mean they needed to be adversarial. When they regroup in the police academy, they form a genuine partnership, realizing they can assist one another. They form an actual friendship and they’re both better cops, and better characters, together.

Hill and Tatum have preposterously good chemistry together as a comic duo. Hill, a co-writer himself, reportedly had to remain steadfast to convince Tatum to join forces, and thank god he stuck it out. Hill’s (Moneyball) already a comic pro at this point, though this role tones down his comical rancor and ups the spaz awkwardness. Tatum (The Vow) is the true revelation. Man does this guy have really great comedic skills; a sharp, instinctive sense of timing, a pliable physicality, and a genial charisma that doesn’t demand solo attention. He’s good at playing dumb without going overboard. He’s not just good, he’s flat-out terrific. Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is an adorable and plucky love interest, sure of herself, down to earth, and accessibly quirky. The supporting cast shines in their small roles, notable Ice Cube (Lottery Ticket) as the typical brash and loud police captain, Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids), in her randiest roll yet, as a chemistry teacher awkwardly flirting with the hunky Jenko, Dave Franco (Fright Night) as an eco-friendly drug dealer, Rob Riggle (The Other Guys) as an aggressive gym teacher, and a special cameo that’s worth leaving unspoiled.

21 Jump Street has some weaker points, namely when the action ramps up it’s pretty mundane when it’s not being funny, but the faults are minor. This is a silly, shrewd, salacious, and outright thrill of giddy entertainment, a comic blast. Hill and Tatum have a wonderful comedic dynamic and the clever screenplay gives them plenty to do with their talents. I didn’t think it was possible to adapt the cheesy TV show into a worthwhile studio comedy, but Hill and company have exceeded every expectation. 21 Jump Street isn’t the most nuanced or subtle comedy, though I will argue spiritedly that it has plenty of smarts in all the right places, but it’s an affectionate, witty, and rambunctious night out at the movies that will be hard to beat this spring.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Silent House (2012)

Ostensibly executed in one long, unblinking take (though you can tell the edit points; the directors admit they filmed it in 10-minute chunks), Silent House is a visceral experience in spookiness, tethered to the brilliant actress Elizabeth Olsen that unfolds in real time. It’s your standard scary house movie, lots of dark rooms and pitiful hiding under furniture; it begins as an intruder(s) stalking Olsen from room to room and then, in the final 20 minutes, transforms into a psychological thriller, with the realm between reality and hallucination blending. The bare-bones plot (girl chased through house) cranks out some decent scares due to directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Open Water)’s tightly executed sense of reality, leaving us feeling as trapped and helpless as our heroine. The movie’s minor successes are also squarely due to Olsen, she of glassy eyes and hoarse scream. It’s almost a one-woman show and Olsen is so convincing in her terror, completely unnerving even when the movie is not. The climax is a bit of a letdown, to say the least, and leaves a lot of off-putting questions that cannot be answered by the movie’s absence of back-story. I won’t say the ending ruins the entire suspenseful experience of Silent House, but it’s certainly going to spur plenty of grumbling. Still, Olsen is a star and gives a terrific freaked-out performance worth getting spooked over. Also it’s based on a 2010 Uruguay movie with the same high-concept gimmick. Now you know Uruguay has a film industry. Don’t you feel better?

Nate’s Grade: B-

John Carter (2012)

John Carter has been in the longest development hell of any movie project in the history of cinema. If nothing else, that’s at least an accomplishment. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs first published his tale of interplanetary adventure in “A Princess of Mars” way back in 1912. It was his first published work, even before the phenomenon that would make him a star, Tarzan. Ever since 1931, filmmakers have been trying to realize Burroughs’ grandiose sci-fi vision but have never been able to finish. In the last decade, the movie has gone through different stages of development, with Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Jon Favreau attached as director at different points. Then Disney snatched up the rights and hired one of its own, Pixar director Andrew Stanton, to do what nobody has been able to do for 80 years –bring Burroughs’ vision to the big screen. It doesn’t hurt when Disney gives you a reported $250 million to spend.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran haunted by his past. He’s chased by a group of bandits and stumbles into a cave that transports him to Mars, known as Barsoom to the natives. Carter discovers that he’s found himself in the middle of another civil war, this time between the cities of Zodanga and Helium. The Tharks are a race of 10-foot tall four-armed warrior creatures, and their leader, Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe), sees Carter as the turning point in getting his people’s lands back. Carter will also help solidify Tars Tarkus’ place as leader to his people. John Carter is a coveted free agent on the red planet. Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) wants John to help her people survive against the Zodangans, lead by Sab Than (Dominic West). Dejah’s father (Cirian Hinds) has brokered a shaky peace on the promise that she and Sab Than will marry. The mysterious Therns, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), are the real power players on Mars. They have offered a powerful new weapon known as the “ninth ray” to give Sab Than the upper hand. All John really wants to do is return home, but first he has to find a way back.

John Carter is an amusing, entertaining throwback to old-fashioned B-movies. Even the depiction of life on Mars is charmingly retro, what a future would look like to a man from the early twentieth century perspective. As a result, the aliens fight with Bronze era weapons and guns that behave like trinkets from a Western. Even the minimalist alien design, the Roman-esque costumes, the fact that everyone can breathe air, and low-grade technology of these advanced species (flying machines that look like Da Vinci designed them) come across as nostalgic, vestiges of the past more so than insights into the future. It’s like watching those old sci-fi TV shows from the 1950s and how they predicted man would have colonized the solar system by now and already have a working lunar colony (Newt Gingrich is trying his best). The movie channels the spirit of old adventure serials and captures a certain gee-whiz, childlike sense of fun. There are moments where Stanton has a playful sense of storytelling, like a near montage of Carter’s determined escapes from officer Powell (Bryan Cranston? Why not?). While being PG-13, there is still a feeling of the Disney-fication of the tale, complete with tamer outfits for Dejah Thoris (do a Google image search) and an adorable alien “dog” sidekick that befriends John.

The best moments are easily the scenes where John integrates into the indigenous Thark tribes, finding a sense of community and a bonding with Tars Tarkas. If the movie had only featured this alien race instead of all those warring people-who-have-red-henna-tattoos-on-so-they-must-be-aliens-right, I think the movie would have succeeded better. One alien race focuses the narrative but instead we get four (three?). When our climax does come into view, the pieces have all fallen into place and the action is suitably thrilling. Stanton’s live-action debut isn’t the homerun that Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible 4 was, but the large-scale action is satisfying and imaginative enough. The payoffs work and Stanton has nicely intertwined his storylines so that everything comes to a head. The Earthbound framing device, with Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading the diary of his rich departed Uncle John, enriches the narrative once the full context is revealed, gearing up the audience for a long-awaited reunion to end the movie on a perfect high note.

What John Carter also has going against it is the pull of time. It’s hard not to see how derivative the story and characters are; Burroughs’ original novels were hugely influential to science fiction writers, and you can see similarities in Star Wars, Avatar, and other works. Scenes in this movie will feel like rip-offs from other movies, like an arena battle with giant alien hordes from Attack of the Clones, riling up a native alien species against its imperial antagonists in Avatar, Deja Thoris clearly has her DNA all over Princess Leia, and the dynamics of jumping through space travel via gateways made me think of how excellent a movie Stargate was (watch it again; it’s terrifically executed). Carter can easily be credited as the predecessor to superheroes. Now it’s unfair to say that John Carter rips off these other sci-fi movies when every one of them was released long after Burroughs’s novels had been widely published. It’s unfair, but you can’t help but feel the way you feel, and I was feeling a fairly resounding sense that I had seen much of this tale before and better. The actual terrain of Mars is a little less than inspiring. Its rocky vistas don’t make it feel too noticeably alien. We don’t ever really get a good view of alien culture outside of the Tharks. John Carter’s one big addition is that the character, given his physiological makeup and Mars’ gravity, can leap to impressive heights that were only previously known by Italian plumbers in video games. This means we get a lot of John Carter jumping up, jumping around, jumping like a Martian jumping bean. But just because you can jump really high, doesn’t that mean you’d be plummeting at a high rate of force? Wouldn’t John seriously break his legs leaping 500 feet in the air and then landing?

The script, credited to Stanton, Mark Andrews (co-director of Pixar’s upcoming Brave), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, is weighed down with expositional slog that it cannot break until the third act. I was expecting a better and more graceful story given Stanton’s previous film, WALL-E, which could be taught in film classes as a textbook example of elegant visual storytelling. With John Carter, it feels like we’ve been hit with the Martian phone book. We’re inundated with unfamiliar names and given scant time to adjust. While a gamble that the audience intelligence will catch up, it also makes for a confusing half of a movie. It’s hard to keep track of all the different names; Tharks this, Hellium that, Zodanga this, Jeddak that, Therns here, Barsoom there, etc. The movie doesn’t gradually expand its Martian history, it just plops us, along with Carter, right into the middle. The opening structure is also a bit confusing, as we’re jumping around time without any proper setup. Still, the movie cannot be accused of being stupid; hokey and convoluted, yes, but not stupid.

And boy do we get a lot of talking for an action movie set on Mars. The middle section is quite heavy with yapping. Kids who came thank to their trust of the Disney name will probably be bored as the movie explains to us things we already know and things we don’t care about knowing. For a two-hour plus film that has a lot of political infighting, I’m surprised that the movie is pretty pedestrian when it comes to its politics. It all really comes down to an arranged marriage to broker peace. That’s not very complicated. The main villains, the ghostly Therns, are completely incomprehensible when it comes to motivation. I have no idea what they stood to gain. If they have a gateway that can take them to Earth, or they have their own copies on Earth, why aren’t they using this to their advantage? Why aren’t they grabbing more Earthmen to form an army of jumping Jacks? Why the significance of the “ninth element” when we all know the fifth element is love? But more importantly, as last year’s Green Lantern proved, it hurts your movie when your hero can’t be bothered to be heroic. It takes far too long for John Carter to seem like he gives a damn about anything. I understand he’s a war-weary vet, but the movie feels like 90 minutes of him shrugging while everyone on Mars desperately pleads with him to save them.

Kitsch (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is going to be having a fairly big breakout year given his mug appearing in several high-profile, high-budgeted movies. The guy has already proven with steady work on TV’s Friday Night Lights that he can act, though the results are not so convincing with John Carter. I think he was going for some sort of gruff, Clint Eastwood-esque loner but he just comes across as wooden. Add his character’s reluctant nature, and it makes for a pretty uninvolving hero. Fortunately for Kitsch (what an unfortunate last name), the supporting cast is there to pick up the slack. Collins (TV’s True Blood) is the real breakout star of the movie. She’s feisty and strong and passionate and altogether easy on the eyes she could give Leia a run for her money in a metal bikini competition. Collins’ performance is filled with urgency, like she’s compensating for our taciturn lead actor. When she’s on screen you feel engaged in the story. Dafoe (Spider-Man) finds the right mixture of humor and pathos as the leader of the Tharks. West (300) has such a slimy sneer to him, it’s magnificent to watch. I’m starting to think that Strong needs to take a break from playing villains (I count eight bad guy roles sine his breakout in 2008’s RocknRolla) except that he’s so good at playing them. I think if Mark Strong ever plays himself in a movie about his own life, he’ll inevitably be the bad guy.

John Carter is an entertaining throwback to the adventure serials of old, a retro sci-fi action film that falters somewhat from a talky, uneven, exposition-laden script. When this movie works, it works quite well. There’s just too much stuff in this movie, too many alien races, too much exposition, and too many other movies that make John Carter feel derivative. What was once amazing and imaginative in 1912 will not have the same effect on audiences in 2012, especially those who have grown up on pop culture inspired by John Carter. I don’t think anyone can say the final product was worth the wait, but John Carter is a modestly fun adventure. I wouldn’t mind taking another trip to Mars, just as long as it doesn’t take 80 years.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Courageous (2011)

Last fall, Courageous opened to sellout crowds, but unless you or your family is plugged in to Christian media, you probably missed it (you know a movie’s got to be good when it has a quote from former football coach Tony Dungy). This is the latest film from the Kendrick brothers, a pair of pastors that started their own production company and have been making low-budget Christian-themed dramas that score big profits. What they really create, in my estimation, are two-hour film components to go along with a ready-made Bible study/lesson package (and you bet you can purchase your own Courageous companion book). As you’d expect, from an objective standpoint, these films, intended for a select audience of the converted, aren’t paragons of film artistry. And the Kendrick brothers’ last movie, 2008’s Kirk Cameron vehicle Fireproof, was awful on just about every level of filmmaking. Courageous is a better film on every front, but “better” and “good” are not interchangeable descriptions.

In the small town of Albany, Georgia, a group of police officers have al come to a personal crossroads concerning fatherhood. Adam (Alex Kendrick, director and co-writer) has recently lost his 11-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident. Nathan (Ken Bevel) is trying to come to terms to forgive the absent father he never knew. He also has to protect his teen daughter from going out with a young boy who happens to be part of a gang. David (Ben Davies) is the rookie in the group with a shameful secret of his own, namely that he has a small daughter he abandoned with her mother. Javier (Robert Amaya) is struggling to find a stable job to support his wife and children. His wife fears they’ll have no choice but to go back to their home country. Shane (Kevin Downes) is feeling the pressures of the job as well and making bad decisions that will catch up with him. The five gentlemen decide to make a public pledge and sign a written contract promising to be involved, loving, and responsible fathers for their families. But saying it and doing it is another matter.

As with most of the Christian-funded film efforts, the movie is secondary to the message. Unlike Fireproof, the filmmakers package their wholesome message in a far more easily digestible package. There are moments in the movie that work really well and ring true, mostly the struggle of overcoming grief at the loss of a child. Adam is told that losing a child has been compared to losing a limb (look out if you lose a limb and a child). It’s not going to give Rabbit Hole a run for its money as far as psychological implications, but there are glimpses that feel like genuine and powerful drama. Whether Adam performing a dance with the memory of his deceased daughter is corny or emotional is up to you. Unfortunately, given the scatter-shot nature of the story, these moments only stay as moments, fleeting in their impact. But I was wholly surprised to even have anything genuine after the ridiculousness of Fireproof. Kendrick has improved as a filmmaker and his grasp on characterization is sharper; there are some nice moments of wry humor like when Adam keeps accidentally telling his chief he “loves him” (those declarations were intended for his wife on the other phone line). There’s an amusing bit akin to a “who’s on first?” routine as Adam mistakenly thinks Javier is another Javier he hired for some construction work. The struggle of an immigrant family hovering above the poverty line is a welcome storyline to a pretty middle-class point of view that dominates the story. I don’t know if the Javier character completely works in the context of this story, but he’s an amiable presence as he becomes an adopted member into the boys’ club. The opening even has a rather exciting flash of action with Nathan holding onto his carjacker from outside the speeding vehicle. There’s a foot chase that is crisply edited and filmed with a bit more flair than is normally accustomed to with these movies. It’s something of a small miracle that Courageous seems to exist in a modestly recognizable universe.

While being easily the best movie yet to bear the Kendrick name, Courageous still has enough faults to limit its execution, likely only reaching those already converted to its Christian values. Subtlety is rarely a tactic employed in Kendrick’s wheelhouse. As a result, everything can become rather ham-handed and message-laden. There are far too many different elements that just don’t jibe together to form a cohesive whole; the movie feels like a series of anecdotes that occasionally collide together. The narrative is stuffed with the death of a child, the struggle of immigrant workers to find a foothold, parental abandonment and reconciliation, gang recruitment, and police corruption (if you’re going to steal drugs from the evidence room, at least replace the weight value). They could have easily lost one of these guys from the plot, particularly the corrupt cop. There’s too much going on for real narrative momentum to get going. Structurally, most of the movies conflicts are resolved before we even get into the meat of Act Three, leaving the movie to finish with a hasty shootout with gang members that feels arbitrary. I suppose the Kendrick brothers might argue that the gang members represent the tragic results of boys raised without strong paternal role models, but that’s a rather simplified implication. And why does no one indignantly reject the idea that the death of a little girl was meant to prosper greater goodness in the world? I would imagine a grieving parent, no matter their closeness with God, would feel some modicum of anger at the idea that their daughter needed to die for them to be a better person. Kendrick is not nearly a strong enough actor to sell the various ups and down his lead character endures.

But the biggest problem I have with the movie is that it posits that “Christian values” and “ethics” are synonymous. I have no beef with any religious belief that people rely upon to choose to be better, more caring, conscientious, and active people. However, I bristle with the notion that ONLY religion can give people the tools to achieve these ethical realizations. The group of characters sits around a barbeque and talk about religion, parenting, their own negligent fathers, but they present religion, and specifically Christianity, as the only solution to being a better person. I would argue that mankind can realize moral good and hold to a code ethics without the direct tutelage of Christianity. If this was the case, would this logical argument not suggest that portions of the world that favor other religions are wayward in any sense of moral reasoning and value? What about before Christianity came into being, all that B.C. part of the timeline? Surely Jews would kvetch that they didn’t need Christianity to adhere to a moral order.

The movie’s patriarchal insistence that men are the only guardians of their family seems ignorant. The women presented in Courageous are pretty much the doting types who wrap their arms around their husbands and remind them what good Godly men that are. The movie puts all the pressure onto the men, somehow missing the point that women can and should be a contributing force when it comes to rearing a family. While the Kendricks have plenty of statistics at hand about the significance of a father, the movie tacitly paints a portrait that a family is doomed when it falls under the complete stewardship of a mother. I’m not going to rip open a feminist rant because I don’t find anything in Courageous to be insidious or malicious, though its depiction of black gang members seems a bit sketchy. I just think the overemphasis on spurring men into taking responsibility doesn’t need to be at the expense of women giving up something. Parenting should be a shared responsibility and not something tagged to whomever holds the title of head of household. And as presented, the movie gives the fathers questionable levels of control. Nathan takes his teen daughter out to a fancy restaurant where he presents her with a fancy ring as a gift in exchange for dad being granted veto-power when it comes to potential boyfriends with no expiration date. I understand it’s meant as a father caring for his daughter, but buying her a ring to celebrate her chastity seems incredibly creepy.

Courageous is an improved effort from the Kendrick brothers and their Sherwood Pictures production house. The movies may improve but they still remain subservient to a message, and the ticket-buyers who look forward to a positive affirmation of that message have fewer demands when it comes to characters, plot, direction, etc. The core audience has a high demand when it comes to spirituality, but I wish they had just as high demands for artistic quality. Why can’t the faithful find inspiration from a movie that isn’t so on-the-nose? Are my only choices when it comes to depictions of spirituality the bludgeoning type (Fireproof, Left Behind, anything with Kirk Cameron really) or the esoteric (The Tree of Life)? Good intentions can only get you so far, and while its core message that men need to be responsible and step it up when it comes to parenting is valid, the rest of the movie jangles with some questionable representations and moral simplification. If people feel truly inspired by these movies to better themselves, then that’s a commendable effect but it doesn’t make the movie any better. At one point a character says that his father was “good enough.” Adam responds, “Well, I don’t want to be just a ‘good enough’ father.” Well, to many Courageous will be a “good enough” Christian drama. To me, mediocrity knows no one faith.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Lorax (2012)

Colorful, energetic, and with a nice message about conservation, The Lorax is an amusing film that is pleasant enough but with little else to recommend it. The visuals are terrific and the Dr. Suess-level of imagination is nicely incorporated in weird ways. The story is about a boy (voiced by Zac Efron) trying to impress a girl (Taylor Swift), but really it’s the story of the Once-ler (Ed Helms) and his destruction of the forest for the sake of making money. The Lorax (Danny DeVito) is an orange, mustachioed creature who “speaks for the trees,” and conflicts with the Once-ler. The framing devices of the young starlets feel unnecessary, and the movie descends into a series of wacky chase scenes. The humor stays around family-friendly slapstick and a few knowing winks for the adults. The songs are amiable and witty but fairly forgettable. I’m having a hard time even summoning a single melody hours after seeing the movie. The rest of the movie is kind of the same way. It’s pleasant and nice enough while watching, but afterwards it evaporates from your memory, leaving only the faint reminiscence of colorful imagery. It’s from the makers of Despicable Me but lacks that movie’s heart. The environmental message will drive some blowhards nuts, but the same activist message existed in Suess’ original book. Anyway, I think The Lorax is a bit too busy and yet simplistic to be anything other than a pleasant diversion. The story just can’t match the greatness of the animation.

Nate’s Grade: B-

A Separation (2011)

When A Separation won the Best Foreign Film Award at the 2012 Oscars, its writer and director, Asghar Farhadi, gave a heartfelt speech where he accepted the award on behalf of a proud people who “respect all cultures,” a country that is much more than portrayed on the news as a Middle Eastern state of agitation and repression. Then the Iranian state-run TV used the opportunity to insult Israel, saying that the Academy “bowed before Iranian culture,” their movie “left behind” the Israeli nominee (Footnote) and “the beginning of the end” of Israel’s influence as it “beats the drums of war.” Sigh. Just when it looks like progress can be made to build cultural bridges. A Separation is a nuanced tale of struggle between tradition, morality, and personal choice. It’s a movie worth taking pride in.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married couple heading for a divorce. She wants to move to the West. He does not want to leave, especially since he must care for his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Simin wants a better life for herself as well as their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own daughter). Simin does not want to leave without her daughter but cannot get the judge to give her custody without Nader’s approval. Simin has moved back in with her parents. Nader hires a working-class maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayet), to care for his father while he’s away at work. Razieh is working unbeknownst to her husband, who would disapprove but has been unemployed for nine months. Caring for the elderly man is a lot more than she bargained for. At one point, Razieh calls an imam to ask if it is a sin to change the elderly man’s soiled pants. Then one day Nader comes home to find hid father sprawled out on the floor, tied to his bed, and locked in the apartment. When Razieh comes back, she says she had an emergency and keeps it vague. Nader fires her, she demands payment for the day, and he pushes her outside his door. The repercussions of this action will be larger than either could have imagined. Razieh and her husband accuse Nader of intentionally pushing the woman, and when she fell she miscarried her baby. Nader is being tried for murder, but nothing is as clear-cut as what it seems.

There’s so much to dissect in the intimate, thrilling, and observant little movie about imperfect people living under an imperfect system. It’s far more than the dissolution of a marriage and its impact that has on their family. It’s about the separation of moral relativism, compromises, cultural estrangement, and the concepts of justice in a world brokered by unjust forces. A Separation is really an ongoing court case that ensnares all the characters and brings them down in some degree. The more information we learn, the more we start questioning exactly what we knew about these characters and their circumstances. We’ll get speeches about doing the right thing in the face of opposition, and yet characters will routinely lie to save their own self-interest in the sacrifice of truth. You’re thrown into the middle of this drama and by the end you’ll likely feel exhausted by how emotionally charged the whole thing is. Lots of breathless arguing, lots of teary-eyed emotions, lots of unvarnished pain exposed, and very little in the way of resolution. This is an agonizing film that doesn’t feel the need to kowtow to the hopes of an audience for a happy ending. The lives of these characters are too complicated for tidy resolutions. The open ending, where Nader and Simin await their daughter’s decision over which parent she will live with, feels perfect considering that these people, due to circumstance both personal and political, are resigned to limitations on their happiness.

This is one of those movies where there are no real villains. You can see everybody’s plight and find some reasonable empathy for these people. Initially, the audience sympathy seems to be completely with Nader. He doesn’t want a divorce but feels indebted to taking care of his ailing father. He feels like he cannot abandon his father to live in the West. Simin is more vague about her rationale for wanting to leave the country, though one can only assume that her concern for her daughter is directly tied to the subjugated roles of women in Iran. Otherwise, her daughter is apart of a middle-class family where education is prized. Simin callously says that the old man is so far gone into dementia, why does it matter? The tension becomes whether Nader would rather care for his aged father or secure a brighter future for his daughter. After this opening marital clash in front of a judge, the film mostly follows Nader and his care of his father. When he confronts Razieh and is fuming about how he discovered his father, we’re there with him. Then when he’s accused of murder, a charge we know seems preposterous given what we’ve witnessed, our empathy further aligns with Nader, who we fill is wrongfully accused of something so serious it will wreck his life and family. Then when Simin reappears, and seemingly believes the worst of the story, it feels like she’s using the fraught circumstances to her advantage to force her daughter’s hand into deciding to leave Iran. But then the movie continues and you see that Simin has more at stake, Razieh is a sad woman penned in by circumstances, and Termeh is not the innocent child she appears to be. Your loyalties will be pulled in multiple directions until you ultimately conclude that these aren’t good people or bad people but merely people, fairly relatable and sympathetic.

A Separation shows a different side to Iran, a side that most Americans don’t see given the news coverage. The Iran on display in the film is a world in conflict. There’s the emerging voice of women conflicting with the male sense of privilege, there’s the conflict between classes illustrated by the stark difference sin living conditions between Nader and Razieh, who must make lengthy commutes just to earn a pittance, the conflict between parents who say they want what is bets for their child but provide her with false choices and use her as a battering ram against the other side, the conflict between a justice system that must stick to the letter of the law and the cases that cannot be so simply defined, the conflict between allegiance and self-interest, the conflict between personal gain and the truth, the conflict of caring for the old versus establishing a life of opportunity for the young, and the conflict between religious faith and daily living. There’s so much going on in this movie that every detail feels telling, ever actor feels rooted is reality, and every new moment further complicates an already messy situation.

A Separation is the kind of meaty drama that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make anymore. It’s patient and uncompromising, trusting its audience to wade through nuance and ambiguity rather than be told explicitly how to feel. The complex character work, alarming intimacy, and observational details of a society in relatable turmoil build the foundation of one very enthralling, thrilling, deeply resonant piece of work. A Separation is an example of superior filmmaking and the idea that movies from around the globe, even places that our politicians demagogue as an “axis of evil,” can tell universally human stories. This is a movie that will spark discussion long after it’s over.

Nate’s Grade: A

Fright Night (2011)

Horror is a genre that’s been notoriously cannibalistic, especially as of late. I don’t mean flesh-eating, I mean the glut of remakes that has polluted the horror market in recent years. After remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, The Hills Have Eyes, House of Wax, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Amityville Horror, The Fog, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Sorority Row, Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, The Thing, and scads more, you’d be forgiven for believing that the remake of 1985’s Fright Night would be another soulless cash grab. It turns out that it’s way better than even the original and quite an entertaining movie that got lost in the shuffle.

In a quiet little suburb outside Las Vegas, students are going missing. Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) suspects that there is a vampire in town. Ed’s former friend, Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin), dismisses this idea, especially since the would-be vampire in question is his new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), a home construction worker who seems to work at night mostly. But lo and behold, after Ed goes missing, Charley concludes that his old friend was right all along. Jerry has his eyes set on Charley’s single realtor mom, Jane (Toni Colette), and maybe even Charlie’s sprightly girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). The only ally Charley can muster is a drunken Vegas magician in the Criss Angel tradition. Peter Vincent (David Tennant) has been studying vampires for years due to his tragic personal connection to vampires, notably Jerry.

Fright Night finds that horror sweet spot, equal parts scary and funny. Credit screenwriter Marti Noxon who cut her teeth on TV’s seminal show (yeah, I said it) Buffy the Vampire Slayer; there’s even a reference to a “Scooby gang” for we Buffy fans. Noxon does a terrific job of establishing a suspenseful situation and then developing it nicely, teasing it out. There’s a sequence where Charley is trying to rescue a neighbor lady that just involves a series of hiding places but uses a simple setup of ducking around corners so well. When our plucky protagonist checks in with Vincent for some assistance, we’re introduced to an array of exotic vampire-hunting weapons and artifacts that the Vegas magician has under glass. With a setup like that, you better believe we’re going to be using those weapons later, and how. The character development is richer than most teens-battle-monster genre films. The relationship between Charley and Ed, and the awkwardness and resentment of two friends growing apart, feels rather believable even dropped into the middle of a vampire adventure. The standard girlfriend role is given a bit more weight, as she’s the one who feels confidant and aggressive. She knows what she wants, and as played by the adorably named Imogen Poots (Solitary Man), you want to be what she wants. Seriously, this actress is striking in her Grecian features and I like a woman who knows how to handle a mace. There are also small touches that I really enjoyed that helped round out the movie. At one moment, a woman is being fed on by Jerry and she spots Charley hiding behind a door. Rather than cry out for help, she carefully draws a shaking finger to her mouth, wishing him to keep quiet and not to save her. The resolution of this rescue attempt is shocking in all the right ways. It’s a surprise that feels completely within reason, and organic twists and turns are always the most satisfying.

Noxon’s script continually surprises even when it starts to follow a by-the-numbers plot. Instead of an axe lopping off a vampire’s head, it just goes about halfway through thanks to the rigidity of bone. That’s a nice touch, but then when that same vampire tries to bite our hero and can’t move his fairly severed neck closer, then that’s when Noxon has capitalized on her cleverness. And she capitalizes often enough for Fright Night to be a real step above most vampire action flicks. Noxon also finds clever spins on vampire mythos; to get around the whole can’t-enter-without-an-invitation rule, Jerry just attempts to blow up the Brewster’s home to drive them out (“Don’t need an invitation if there’s no house”). There’s a particularly ingenious method to light a vampire on fire. And the entire character of Peter Vincent, played brilliantly by Dr. Who actor David Tennant, is a hoot and a great addition. He’s a riot as a cynical, profane, and selfish stage performer.  His character is such an enjoyably comic foil, and Tennant plays him with aplomb, that you almost wish for a Peter Vincent spinoff movie.

Director Craig Gillespie shows that he is shocking adept when it comes to staging a horror film. I would not have expected this level of competency from the director of Lars and the Real Girl. It embraces its R-rating and the bloodshed is plentiful though the gore is restrained. Gillespie draws out scenes with judicious editing, letting the dread build steadily. The tension of something simple like Jerry standing in a doorway, waiting for any verbal slipup to come inside, can be terrific. Gillespie also has some nifty visual tricks up his sleeve to complement Noxon’s crafty screenplay. There’s one scene where Jerry walks into a hotel lobby and is confronted by a security guard. The camera pans over a series of security monitors that do not pick up Jerry. Then in the background we see Jerry hurl the guard to the ground to bite him and in the foreground we see the security footage minus Jerry. There’s an ongoing tracking shot inside a fleeing minivan that’s not exactly Children of Men but still a good way to feel the fever of panic. The final showdown between Charley and Vincent versus Jerry is suitably climactic and rewarding, nicely tying back elements that were introduced earlier and giving Poots an opportunity to vamp out, literally and figuratively.

Farrell (Horrible Bosses) is a charming, sexy, alluring menace as Jerry, which is exactly what you’d want in a vampire (sorry Twilight fans). Vampires are supposed to be seductive; they’re inherently sexual, what with all that biting and sucking and sharing of body fluids. If Jerry is going to be dangerous, he also has to be seductive, and Farrell is exactly that. With his swaggering walk, with his pose-worthy stances, with his grins, he’s a great ambassador for vampire kind. But this guy does more than preen; he’s also a credible threat. He’s the bad boy that is actually quite bad. Farrell’s enjoyment of his villainous role is noticeable. Jerry taunts Vincent: “You have your mother’s eyes.” He shoots and misses the big bad vamp. “And your father’s aim,” he add, chillingly. Having a strong villain can do wonders for an action movie, and Jerry is a formidable foe played with great relish by Farrell.

Not everything goes off without a hitch. The special effects can be dodgy at times, especially when Jerry goes into full CGI vampire face. The vampires tend to look like shark people, with long exaggerated jaws and rows of gnarly teeth. It’s not a particularly good look. While Noxon’s script excels in most areas, there is still enough dangling plot threads. Charley’s mother is really never a figure of significance. Her potential romance of her neighbor/vampire is a storyline that is never capitalized upon, oddly enough. That seems like the kind of storyline you’d build a whole movie around. She’s written out of the movie in hasty fashion, immediately going from a sequence of driving to being unconscious in a hospital bed. How did that happen exactly? After the Brewster house explodes, nobody seems to make a big deal out of this, like it’s just some regular neighborhood occurrence. What kind of neighborhood watch is this?

Fright Night is just a fun night out at the movies. It’s got plenty of laughs thanks to Noxon’s clever script, plenty of scares thanks to Gillespie, and plenty of sex appeal oozing from Farrell (though “sex appeal” and “oozing” don’t sound like an advisable linguistic match). It’s not much more than a vampire action flick but it’s a really good vampire action flick, clearly a cut above the dreck that usually just relies on its audience’s understanding of genre convention to cover up for its shortcomings. There’s no reason you cannot be a good movie with this genre, and Fright Night is proof of that. Convincingly acted, cleverly staged, and surprisingly well-executed, this is one genre movie that hits the right vein.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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