Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.
Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.
As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.
There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.
Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.
I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.
At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.
Nate’s Grade: B
Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
It was halfway through Roman J. Israel, Esq., a soggy legal thriller and morality play, that I got up and took an extended bathroom break and felt no guilt. At that point I had just sat through a solid hour of set up, establishing Denzel Washington as a frumpy, super autistic, super awkward, out-of-time civil rights lawyer but I kept waiting for the plot to engage. And I kept waiting, and waiting, and finally writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (Nightcrawler) movie seemed to connect some relevant plot events, Roman doing something unethical to profit personally and suffering the consequences. It was here I thought now things will start to ramp up, now there will be a stronger sense of urgency with what was already a loping, ungainly film that felt more like a collection of scenes with little cohesion. Whatever it’s meant to be, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a tedious process, a movie fumbling for an identity. It’s hard for me to believe this is from the same creative voice that gave us the entrancing Nightcrawler. Washington is agreeably playing against type and always worth watching. There are ideas here that could have worked had they been refined and reworked. It just all feels like anything rarely matters or adds up to anything significant. Take for instance Roman’s brief he plans to file that will, by his admission, change the very criminal justice system. He mentions this mission when it appears that his new boss (Colin Farrell) may fire him. It looks like this brilliantly composed legal brief will seem like a pretty big deal. Well Roman doesn’t do anything with it for the rest of the movie, though it does serve as his legacy anyway. Farrell’s character can wildly fluctuate between a lawyer hungry for exposure and high-paying clients and a guy who wants to be like Roman, helping the little guy and advancing civil rights causes. This is a movie that just feels listless, bumping around from one disjointed plot point to another, and the only thing keeping me in my seat was Washington’s acting prowess. But even that couldn’t hold me forever.
Nate’s Grade: C
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos might just be the most perversely ingenious creative mind working in movies today. After Dogtooth and The Lobster, I will see anything that has this man’s name attached to it, especially as a writer/director. Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a challenging revenge thriller, a macabre comedy, a morality play, and a generally uncomfortable watch that is just as alienating as it is totally brilliant.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon with a loving family that includes his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffrey Cassidy), and young song Bob (Sunny Suljic). Then there’s Martin (Barry Keoghan), the lonely son of a patient who died on Steven’s operating table. He won’t leave Steven alone and doesn’t understand boundaries, even trying to hook up Steven with his lonely mother (Alicia Silverstone, yep you read that right). Martin even takes an interest in Kim. However, once Steven’s son falls victim of a mysterious illness and becomes paralyzed, Martin makes his true intentions clear. He’s poisoned all three of the Murphy family members and they are destined to die slowly unless Steven kills one of them. He has to choose which family member’s life to take with his own hands, or else they all die.
It’s hard for me to think of whom exactly to recommend this movie to because it is so intentionally off-putting. It’s intended to make you awkwardly squirm and question what you are watching. This will not be a fun watch by most accounts unless you’re a very select person who has a dark sense of humor and an appreciation for something different. Lanthimos seems to be purposely testing his audience’s endurance from the start. We open on several seconds of black to test our patience and then an extended close-up of real open-heart surgery. My pal Ben Bailey had to shield his face from the screen. From there, the movie defies your expectations at most turns and digs further into its depths of darkness. This is one of those movies where you wonder whether it will go “there” and it most assuredly goes there and beyond. One minute you’ll be cringing, the next you’ll be cackling, and the next you’ll be deeply unsettled, and then maybe back to laughing if you’re like me. Much like Lanthimos’ other movies, his deadpan sense of comedy is his prescription for an absurd world. It’s a movie where you have to actively work to adjust to its bizarre wavelength, but if you can, there are rewards aplenty. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Unlike The Lobster, this doesn’t exist in a completely parallel universe but more of a cracked, heightened version of our own. Lanthimos’ breakout film, 2009’s Dogtooth, dropped the audience into a strange world and expected us to catch up. This is similar. The flatly comic conversations become a sort of absurdist poetry. Everyday moments can be given one extra strange beat and become hilarious. Scene to scene, I didn’t know what would happen. The movie allows its story to properly breathe while finding room for its characters to discover intriguing diversions and insights, like Martin’s recollection of how he and his father eat spaghetti the same way. There’s an unusual sexual kink that involves giving oneself completely to another that makes more than one appearance, enough to question the connection between them. The very geneses of that kink I think alligns with a character’s god complex, but that’s my working interpretation. It made me rethink about the aberrant concepts of sexuality in Dogtooth, a.k.a. the nightmare result of helicopter parenting. The handling of pubescent sexuality, and the idea of incorrectly applying information learned from other settings, is just one more tool to make the audience uneasy. Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a closer approximation of our world in order for there to be a better sense of stakes. Somebody is going to die, and if Steven cannot choose then everyone will die. This isn’t a fantasy world but a real family being terrorized by a demented and vengeful stalker. This gangly teenager is more terrifying and determined than just about any standard slasher villain.
This is a modern-day Greek tragedy literally inspired by an ancient one. Prior to the Trojan War, Agamemnon was hunting and killed one of the sacred deer belonging to Artemis. The angry goddess stranded Agamemnon’s ships and demanded a sacrifice in order for the winds to return. He had to choose one of his family members to kill, and Iphigenia got the short end of that one. Euripides’ classic work gets a fresh retooling and Lanthimos is not one to merely stand on ceremony. He smartly develops his premise and takes it in organic directions that feel believable even given the ludicrous circumstances. That is Lanthimos’ gift as a storyteller, being able to make the ludicrous feel genuine. After the half-hour mark, where Martin comes clean, the movie really takes off. Does Steven tell his family and how much? Does he take matters into his own hands to convince Martin to stop? Is he actually culpable for the death of Martin’s father? Once the reality becomes clear and people starting getting increasingly sick, the movie becomes even direr. Steven is given the unenviable position to choose life and death, though he frequently shucks responsibility and only continues to make matters worse. Once his family comes to terms with the reality of Martin’s threat, they each try different methods to argue their personal favor to dear old dad. They vie to be father’s favorite or, at least, not his most expendable loved one. It’s a richly macabre jockeying that had me laughing and then cackling from the plain absurdity. Lanthimos presents a tragedy and forces the audience to simmer and contemplate it, but he doesn’t put his characters on hold either. They are adapting and have their own agendas, mostly doing whatever they can to campaign for their lives at the expense of their family (Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious character would loath this movie with a sleeveless fury).
The end deserves its own mention but fear not dear reader I won’t spoil it. It’s a sequence that had me literally biting my own hand in anxiety. I was pushing myself backwards in my chair, trying to instinctively escape the moment. It’s the culmination of the movie and feels entirely in keeping with Lanthimos’ twisted vision and the depiction of Steven as a weak man. There’s a strange sense of inevitability to it all that marks the best tragedies. I don’t know if I’ll sit through a more intense, uncomfortable few minutes in 2017, and yes I’ve seen, and appreciate, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! of difficult 2017 sits.
As much as this is a thriller it also feels just as much a satire of overwrought Hollywood thrillers. The killer isn’t some shadowy evil genius. He’s just a very determined teenager in your neighborhood. There are several moments that are difficult to describe but I know Lanthimos is doing them on purpose as a critique of thrillers. At the end, a character shakes a generous heaping of ketchup onto a plate of French fries, and we’re meant to get the lazy metaphor of the sloshing ketchup as spilled blood. However, under Lanthimos’ heavy direction, the shot holds longer, the accompanying soundtrack becomes an operatic crescendo, and the whole thing turns comic. Lanthimos has to know what he’s doing here, commenting on the lazy symbolism of dread in overwrought thrillers. There’s another instance where Martin has severely bitten into Steven’s arm. Martin’s apologetic and promises to make it right and then proceeds to bite a chunk of flesh out of his own arm and spit it onto the floor as an offering. That would have been creepy enough but then Lanthimos goes one step further. “Get it, it’s a metaphor,” Martin explains. It’s one in a series of moments where Lanthimos goes a step further into pointed genre satire. It’s possible I’m reading too much into the rationale behind some of these oddities but I don’t really think so. It seems too knowing, too intentional.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie that invites discussion, analysis, and just a general debriefing in the “what the hell did I just watch?” vein. This is a movie experience that calls upon the full range of human emotions, and sometimes in the same moment. Lanthimos’ modern Greek tragedy serves up a self-aware critique of its own genre, as he puts his personal stamp on the serial killer thriller. This is also an alienating film that doesn’t try to be accessible for a wider audience. It almost feels like Andy Kaufman doing an experiment replicating Stanley Kubrick (and it was filmed in Cincinnati). Even if you loved Lathimos’ most high profile work, The Lobster, I don’t know if you’d feel the same way about Killing of a Sacred Deer. It wears its off-putting and moody nature as a badge of honor. I found it equally ridiculous and compelling, reflective and over-the-top, sardonic and serious. Dear reader, I have no idea what you’ll think of this thing. If you’re game for a demanding and unique filmgoing experience and don’t mind being pushed in painfully awkward places, then drop into the stunning world of Lanthimos’ purely twisted imagination. Killing of a Sacred Deer just gets better the more I dissect it, finding new meaning and connections. If you can handle its burdens of discomfort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the most memorable films of the year and also one of the best.
Nate’s Grade: A-
When people decry the relentless slate of sequels, remakes, and redundancy from the Hollywood assembly line, they’re looking for something original and different, and there may be no movie more different this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. David (Colin Farrell) is the newest guest at the Hotel, a place for singles to find their true love. He has 40 days to fall in love with a compatible mate or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (hence the title, David’s choice). The people at the hotel are all in competition to find their mate. Outside the confines of the hotel, in the woods, are dreaded single people, those who ignored the rules of society. They are to be feared and hotel guests are rewarded for capturing wild singles on weekly hunting trips. One way or another, David is going to have to decide his place in society as a person or animal.
The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. It’s something that the writer/director already achieved with chilling, car-crash fascination in Dogtooth, a dark parable about extreme parental protection that crossed over into abuse. This is a world that opens with a distraught woman driving a long distance just so she can shoot a donkey in the head. Who is this woman? Why would she purposely murder this animal? Why is she so emotionally invested? And with that jarring act of peculiar violence, we’re off. We’re never told how this world came to be, it just simply is. There isn’t any extensive exposition save for one initial sit down David has with hotel management to determine what animal he’d like to turn into at the end of his stay if unsuccessful in love. There’s a genuine sense of authenticity to this deeply weird place and the characters all play it with straight-laced absurdity, which makes the satire land even harder. It sells even the most bizarre aspects, like the ongoing visual incongruity of wild animals just trotting around the background. You can sit back and think, “I wonder what that peacock’s story was, or that donkey, etc.” Its abnormal background pieces that add to the context of the world. I loved discovering new little wrinkles and rules to Lanthimos’ world that made perfect sense within its parameters. In a world where coupling is the only goal, of course masturbation would be a punishable crime. I enjoyed that there are other means guests have to stay at the hotel, chief among them hunting down the loners in the woods, which allow the more awkward or anti-social guests added time at the expense of others. Even in a world this bizarre, there are people who are making their own way, including the revolutionaries in the woods (more on them later). The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier.
The movie straddles the line between skewed ironic romance and cynicism, so I’m not surprised it’s rubbed people the wrong way. This can be a pretty dark movie and that’s even before the violence against animals/former people. It’s certainly written from the point of view of someone who is single and those currently in that category will likely relate the most to the film’s strident social commentary. “It’s no coincidence the targets are shaped like single people,” a man says in reference to target outlines. The pressures can seem absurd in their own regard, and the film has a clever concoction where the “happy couples” are merely two people who share a superficial physical trait. These two people are near-sighted. These two people get nosebleeds. These two people have a limp. Even the characters are named after their physical depictions, like The Limping Man and Short-Sighted Woman. It’s not exactly subtle but the satiric effect is still effective. The hotel manager says, to a newly cemented couple, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.” The humor can be very dry and very dark, never stopping to inform you where to laugh. There’s a sad woman played by Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras, Ugly Betty) who is desperate for companionship, offering sexual favors to any man who might just alleviate her loneliness. She is ignored and often threatens to kill herself, and then one day she does it by jumping out a hotel window, but she’s not successful. It’s one more dark, awful ironic point of suffering for this woman, and she screams in agony while others ignore her, including a clearly affected David, still trying to play indifferent to win over the hard-hearted woman he sees as his best way out of the hotel. It’s a hard moment to process but one that made me admire the film even more for the cold courage of its convictions.
Supplementing the dark satire is an off-kilter romance that emerges halfway through the film once David escapes the hotel. He finally meets up with the source of our narration, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). It’s here that the movie shows glimmers of hope for the hopeless as David and this woman are drawn to one another. They’re in a world of outcasts but the rules of those in the forest do not allow coupling. They reject the expectations of the ruling order, and so they must remain resolutely single. the only time David and the Short-Sighted Woman can be open with their affection is when they go undercover into the city, posing as a couple, and getting a chance to kiss with abandon, all as a cover of course. They build up their own secret non-verbal language to communicate their feelings, much like a couple builds its own personal shorthand and inside jokes. The loners are only to listen to music individually and dance the same, but David and the Short-Sighted Woman synch their CD players to listen to the same track, to simulate like they are sharing a dance together even if not in proximity. It’s here where The Lobster becomes a beguiling and surprising love story and one where the heartless may grow a heart, watching two odd people find one another in such an odd world. However, Lanthimos does not let this emergence of romance blunt his message. The loner leader (Lea Seydoux) suspects coupling in her group and goes to some pretty drastic lengths to test the fortitude of feelings between David and his secret girlfriend. It’s like getting cold water dumped on the runaway spell of optimism. The fitting ending is left in ambiguity for the audience to determine whether they were meant to be after all.
It’s also in the second half of The Lobster that the movie loses some of its grandeur and momentum. We’re introduced to a new primary setting with new rules to adapt to and a new order to follow, and there’s a general interest to discovering another competing area of this landscape with a diametrically opposed social order. They punish people by mutilating parts that come into affectionate contact with another person. We see a couple with bandages around their red, swollen mouths, and then the reference of the “red intercourse” makes your imagination fill in the horrific blanks. David has left one regime dictating his life to another regime dictating his life, but they just aren’t as interesting. It feels like the film is starting to repeat itself. I would say the second half world building isn’t as compelling as the first but that’s why the romance emerges, something for the audience to root for. Now that he’s finally found someone he connects with they’re not allowed to be together. There’s never a shortage of irony in a Lanthimos movie.
The actors are perfectly in synch with the strange rhythms of this world, and Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) deserve special attention for their committed performances. Farrell gained 40 pounds for the role, which seems to have translated right into his stint on season two of HBO’s True Detective. He’s a schlubby guy that’s still mourning the deterioration of his marriage and larger society is insisting he get over it. He has only 40 days to recover or he’ll be plucked from the ranks of humanity. There’s great sadness tinged in his nonchalant responses to the absurd realities of this world, and Farrell keeps finding ways to make you laugh and wince. Weisz is our placid voice into the strange new world and it helps establish a sense of grounding as well as connection to her character when she eventually emerges. She injects a palpable sense of yearning to her character, especially once David is in reach and they begin their relationship. It’s got the cute romantic comedy staples but on its own terms, and seeing Weisz smile warmly is a pleasure in a morbid movie.
The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become emotionally moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.
Nate’s Grade: A
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Every now and then you get to witness a special movie that doesn’t so much offend as it inspires, and what it inspires is a question you grapple with during the entirety of its run time, mainly – How did this get made? At any point, did the producers or actors or anyone stop, take a moment to reflect on the movie they were participating in, and think, “Wait, what is going on here?” Bad movies made by hacks are easy to shrug off because, well, hacks don’t know any better but bad movies (see: InAPPropriate Comedy, or better yet, bleach your eyeballs first). With Winter’s Tale, there are people who should know better, people that have been awarded Oscars. These people should resolutely know a terrible movie while they’re making it. Maybe they did. Look deep into their eyes.
In 1918, Frank Lake (Colin Farrell) is an orphan long abandoned by his family so he could have a better life in America. He hasn’t taken this message to heart. Frank worked as an expert safecracker under the employ of local crime boss Pearly (Russell Crowe), and Pearly hasn’t taken kindly to Frank leaving. Frank is able to escape Pearly’s goons and finds love with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a wealthy heiress afflicted with consumption. Pearly doesn’t want Frank to get away because Pearly is really a demon in the employ of the Devil (Will Smith, yes you read that right). In the battle of good versus evil, Frank and Beverly appear to be at the focal point.
I have to give writer/director Akiva Goldsman some credit for making an unabashedly earnest movie in an era of irony and ready-made snark. His goopy romantic fantasy longs to exist in a simpler era, but even then Winter’s Tale would fall apart on many levels. Its sheer unbending corniness is both a blessing and a curse. Magic realism is one thing (check out 2001’s Amelie as a how-to guide), but what Goldsman seems to be going for is a modern fairy tale (our maiden locked away in her tower, true love’s kiss, etc.). The film wants the audience to fall under its spell but instead will likely elicit numerous unintentionally hilarious moments; I was laughing to myself throughout, trying to comprehend all of the hokum and poor decision-making (Will Smith as the devil?).
Let’s begin with the fact that the movie is an obtuse fantasy that feels like it makes up its plot and its rules as it goes along. Bleeding fantasy and fantastical creatures into the everyday world is a marvelous conceit but it needs finesse and careful rule building. Otherwise it doesn’t so much feel like a story with a sense of internal logic as it does a bedtime story that can always just create a new shortcut or extension. The very first few minutes of the film will already push your credulity to the test. We see an adult Peter on the run from Pearly and his goons and all of a sudden he runs into… a white horse. Ah, but this is no ordinary horse, this is a magic flying horse, and Peter flies away to live another day. Yep, within minutes, we’re given a magic flying horse. No groundwork. Worse, the horse just randomly appears when the plot demands, and I think the horse is supposed to represent the side of God in this cosmic battle between good and evil. Whatever, there is a magic flying horse. From there the film gets even cornier. It’s the type of movie that posits the stars are really human beings, and so, in the end, rather than having our hero ride off into the sunset he (spoilers be damned) flies off into space on his magic flying horse and he BECOMES a new star, resting beside the star meaning to represent his beloved (never mind that these stars would be millions of light years apart). If you can read that sentence without rolling your eyes then congratulations are due.
Another problem is this massive time leap that creates far more plot holes. After Beverly succumbs to her illness, which I might add happens literally SECONDS after she’s done having sex for the first time (Colin Farrell killed her with his penis), the film leaps forward to present-day. However, Peter was given immortality through Beverly’s miracle. I suppose you could view miracles as a byproduct of sex. At first glance, this almost seems like a cruel gift; your love is dead and now you have to live forever without her. For no discernible reason, Peter also suffers amnesia, because, really, why not? All he does day after day, presumably for… 90 years, is sketch the same image of a redheaded girl in public places. In the intertwining years, why hasn’t evil Pearly picked up on the fact that Peter is still alive? He’s only been sketching the exact same image. Also, how does Peter even support himself? How does he feed himself? Who are his friends? These are the questions that arise when you take this foolish route with the plot. It could have been avoided with a simply Rip Van Winkle-style hibernation or time jump. Another problem is that Peter grew up with the 90 years of history, meaning he should know what things like the Internet and library cards are. He’s not a man out of time. The solution to Peter being confirmed is to seek out the still-living Willa (Eva Marie Saint, nice to see you again). The problem with this is that Willa should at least be over a hundred years old if you do the math. If the purpose of the leap forward was to just save another character we hadn’t seen previously, why does it have to be 2014? Why couldn’t it just have been 1940 or any other earlier period?
And the central romance between Frank and Beverly is just so boring you wish Frank would move on to someone new. Presumably they fell in love at first sight, which just so happened to be when he was in the process of robbing her home. Ah, but you see, her love redeems him because that’s really the whole role of the sick love interest in movies, to make the other figure a better person through this shared experience of grief. So in this regard it’s no surprise that Beverly lacks defining characteristics outside of her ailment. She plays the piano and falls fast for Farrell’s bushy eyebrows, but that’s all we got here. The entire second act of the film follows their abbreviated courtship, but there’s no real moment where you buy into their romance. Like most of the film’s storytelling, we’re told something is and expected to buy into it 100 percent without flinching. They’re in love, what more do you need? Well, some interesting characters would be a start.
I’m fairly certain that all of these actors were doing Goldman a favor by appearing in this nonsense, but only Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks) walks away favorably. He is the best person onscreen who burrows into their character, ignoring the absurdity of every moment, yearning so hard that you almost want to give in. You won’t. Many will best remember Findlay as the Lady Sybill on TV’s Downton Abbey (she was also the reoccurring ghost on the BBC’s Misfits). Here she gets little else to do but smile and give those knowing looks that all afflicted characters give, as if their illness has opened up the secrets to the universe for them. Crowe’s performance will likely draw up comparisons to his maligned work in Les Miserables, a performance that wasn’t as bad as advertised theater snobs. This performance, however, is as bad, as his Irish brogue seems to overtake him and he comes across like a hotheaded big bad wolf. Jennifer Connelly’s appearance isn’t even worth mentioning as it is that slight beyond the fact that she’s the mother of a terminally ill child (you really thought the movie had any sense of restraint?). The film has numerous well known actors for flashes, like Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Graham Green, Matt Bomer as Frank’s immigrant father. One suspects their brief time was either a sign that the screenplay evolved as production went or that they were repaying a debt.
I will say the only saving grace in this entire blunder is the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ). Even when the cheesy special effects take flight, Deschanel makes sure the images are worth watching, having a special skill with the cool hues of the wintry color palette. I wanted to at least credit one redeeming aspect.
The inconsistent plotting and rules, the corny and overly wistful characterization, the overwhelming silliness of every single moment, Winter’s Tale will spark far more guffaws and derision than plaudits. It’s a movie that bludgeons you with its unrelenting maudlin nature disguised as romantic fantasy. The source material is beloved by some but it all comes across as nonsensical twaddle onscreen. Goldsman’s screenwriting credits run the gamut from award winning (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), to big budget to notorious stinkers (Batman & Robin, Lost in Space). It’s hard to judge the man’s talents with such a wide range of quality. However, I can question the finished results of Winter’s Tale and openly wonder what in the world convinced Goldsman to cash in all his Hollywood cache to direct this dreck. I’m almost tempted to encourage people to watch Winter’s Tale just to try and make sense of it themselves, to try and take in 118 minutes of earnest bad decisions. Whether it’s the magic flying horse, the 100-year-old news writer, or the fact that we’re dealing with a bad guy named Pearly, or Will Smith as Lucifer, but sometimes Hollywood unleashes a disaster that begs to be seen.
Nate’s Grade: D
Writer/director Martin McDonagh only has one movie to his name but the man has already accrued legendary status in some circles. The 2008 dark comedy In Bruges didn’t create much of a blip at the box-office, but its blend of absurdist comedy, dark drama, shocking violence, and languid contemplation found a rabid cult following. I have several friends who regard In Bruges as the best film of 2008 (WALL-E still reigns supreme for me but I quite enjoyed In Bruges).McDonuagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, reminds me of Barton Fink: both are about struggling writers, both are satires of the film industry, and both have sudden splashes of violence and a serial killer who pushes the protagonist to artistic completion. In other words, Seven Psychopaths is a fun film and a great time at the movies.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is experiencing some killer writer’s block. He’s stuck on his new screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help out. The guys run afoul of another psychopath, mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), due to Billy’s side business. He kidnaps rich people’s dogs and then his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns them and collects a reward. Billy and Hans have kidnapped the wrong shih tzu, and now Charlie and his muscle is going to make them pay.
The refreshing thing about the bloody, wickedly entertaining Seven Psychopaths is that it constantly surprises you. This is such a rarity with modern movies, particularly Hollywood movies that attract as notable a cast as this one. McDonagh is wonderfully adept at throwing narrative curveballs. There were a few surprises where I literally jumped in my seat. You constantly think you have the movie figured out, and then it goes down a different alley and becomes more interesting. One of the pleasures of having psychopathic lead characters is that they are impulsive and do not have to follow the normal purview of logical decision making. They might just call the bad guys and divulge where they are hiding. They can do anything at any moment, and part of that unpredictability is what makes the movie feel so electric, so creatively alive. I must stress that McDonagh surprises in ways that feel satisfying and yet believable given the world he’s concocted. Part of the fun in the first half is just figuring out who the seven psychopaths will be. It’s not like it’s some laconic chamber piece mystery but the psychopaths are an eclectic mix from the real to the fictional to real characters doubling as inspiration for fictional ones. I think in the end there may only be six psychopaths, unless McDonagh is counting himself amongst the numbers.
McDonagh also has a blast deconstructing the very kind of movie that he’s providing. Marty bemoans writing another rote psychopathic killer movie where the violence is fetishized and the bad guys are mythologized into idols. You think the film is headed in one direction, in the Guy Ritchie-style standoffs and shootouts, and then it takes a less traveled path, one where it criticizes these sorts of movies and ponders existential questions about the nature of self-expression and death. It began as a care-free movie about thugs and writers and transformed into a movie that manages to have something to say about life, philosophy, and the cyclical nature of vengeance. Two of our three main protagonists are pacifists and remain so to their imperilment. At one point, a character narrates how this story as a proper movie would end, and it covers all the nihilistic clichés of vengeance and epic body counts. But then Marty, and McDonagh as well, wants to turn away from the expected, from violence for the sake of violence, from the exploitation of stylized suffering. McDonagh doesn’t forget to entertain while he’s making you think in between those handfuls of popcorn. The female characters in the movie (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko) are generally wasted, in different senses, but McDonagh uses this as another charge against this type of film (a boy’s night out of carnage). This is an accessible movie that can be enjoyed on a whole other meta level. I loved the various gear changes. For me it took the pulpy action material and elevated it to another level of genius.
McDonagh still maintains his darkly sardonic streak of humor that made In Bruges such a riot. I was laughing throughout Seven Psychopaths; chortles, snorts, giggles, big belly laughs. With its heedless violence, obviously this will not be a film that runs on every person’s wavelength of funny. The very opening involves two mafia hitman debating whether shooting somebody in the eye takes actual precision or just dumb luck. It’s the sort of mundane conversation you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and also the precursor to something nasty and ironic. McDonagh’s sense of humor is similar to Ritchie or the Coen brothers, but the man establishes his own sense of wicked whimsy. The absurdist dialogue is always a hoot and can generate serious malice, especially when delivered by stern psychopaths. Rockwell (Moon) in particular is outstanding and delivers a virtuoso performance of the unhinged. The man just radiates energy. You’ll feel jacked up just watching him. I keep waiting for this underrated actor to break out with each star-making turn, and his comedic zing is played to perfection in Seven Psychopaths. In contrast, Walken (Hairspray) is rather reserved as he underplays his character, one of the saner men he’s played. It feels like the passing of the torch from the older generation of psychopath to the newer generation.
Being a colorful movie about colorful bad guys, and girls, you’d expect there to be some grade-A oddballs, and McDonagh does not disappoint. Some of the psychopaths in question have little bearing on the story plot-wise. There’s Zachariah played by the impeccable Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He answers an ad that Billy set up for psychopaths to share their stories to Marty. His tale involves cross-country spree killing of serial killers, rabbit petting, and the love of his life, and partner in crime, leaving him. As far as plot, this little aside has little significance to the plot other than setting up a superb joke to end the movie with. But the character is so interesting, multidimensional, and played with equal parts aloofness and sincerity by Waits, that you can’t imagine the movie without him. Several of these psychopaths could have been the stars of their own movie, from the vigilante killing mob thugs to the tale of one father’s long path to vengeance. Even the fictional psychopath, the Vietnamese man (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance against G.I.’s, could have enough weight to carry a feature film. The amazing part of the movie is that you don’t feel like any of these characters are shortchanged. McDonagh finds ways to emotionally ground his characters, allowing the audience to empathize amidst the bloodshed and loony characters. We care about Hans and his ailing wife; we care about the friendship between Marty and Billy. It’s real for these characters and so it feels real to us, despite the hyper-real flourishes of the movie.
If you’re a fan of In Bruges, or just dark comedies mixed with sudden violence, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy with Seven Psychopaths. You don’t have to be nuts but it helps. McDonagh has crafted another winner with sharp dialogue, a twisty plot full of surprises, incisive commentary on movies and movie expectations, as well as some sincere soul-searching and poignancy. This baby has it all, folks. Above all else, it’s just a blast of fun. the actors all seem to be having the times of their lives, notably Rockwell, and the morbid laughs and off-kilter thrills should cement another McDonaugh film for cult status. Seven Psychopaths is a palyful movie along the lines of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Adaptation. It’s bursting with ideas and comments and jokes. when you leave the theater you almost want to get back in line and start the ride all over again.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The latest needless remake takes the basic elements of 1990’s Total Recall and streamlines them into one very long chase sequence. And for those concerned males, the three-boobed lady makes a triumphant reappearance, because surely the movie wouldn’t be the same without her. Though in the age of the Internet, the sight of a three-boobed woman seems less indelible to impressionable male minds. But I digress. I was ready to dismiss this as another soulless Hollywood remake. Then I found myself enjoying Total Recall, and even the stuff that was dumb I had to also admit was cool. Take for instance a commute that goes through the center of the Earth. How exactly could such a thing be built? What does one do for maintenance? How does this not affect the Earth’s rotation? But then I forgot all about it because, in pure movie terms, it was cool. The zero gravity change-up as the transport changes directions at the core – cool. The fact that we get a zero gravity action sequence in this environment – cool. The fact that this transport system becomes a conduit for an invasion – cool. The plot mechanics are all familiar, notably the memory wipes and the super spy histories, but I didn’t care because the movie rarely lets its foot off the gas. When this thing starts, it doesn’t let up. The chase sequences are well executed amidst an imaginative array of locations, from a flying highway to a series of hanging housing developments. It’s not terribly smart but Total Recall is an entertaining escapist thriller that delivers some robust action and enough imagination in its future settings. Plus, there’s a woman with three boobs in it.
Nate’s Grade: B
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-