Fright Night (2011) – Not a waste of film

Title: Fright Night

Director/Stars: Colin Farrell (Actor), Anton Yelchin (Actor), Imogen Poots (Actor), Craig Gillespie (Director)

Genre: Horror

Watched: August 19, 2011 (and before)

Summary: Fun update!

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As a lifelong vampire fan — hell, my first novel is (somewhat) about vampires — I saw and loved the original Fright Night when it opened in 1985. Truth be told it was always one of my favorite vampire movies (up there with Coppola’s DraculaInterview with the Vampire, Let the Right One In, and The Lost Boys). The 1985 Fright Night offers up a clever blend of comedy and horror. Not only is the movie very funny (and it holds up well today), but it’s not a pure spoof. The plot’s moderately clever, and the vampire, played by Chris Sarandon (Susan’s first husband) has a sinister charm and a genuine sense of menace. In my opinion vampires need a sense of menace (even the goofy Master from Buffy Season 1 is menacing). No sparkles for me.

So it was with some trepidation that I checked out the remake. See the trailer below:

I was pleasantly surprised to find the new version pretty fricking good. The story is loosely faithful to the original film. Buffy writer Marti Noxon penned the screenplay. She’s a consistently excellent writer, with the exception of the incredibly sucky I Am Number Four (maybe someone butchered it after the fact?) with a knack for catchy dialog. Most of the original elements survived intact, but character and balance has been adjusted significantly. Most substantially, Roddy McDowall‘s campy older vampire-killer TV host has been replaced by David Tennant channeling a campy blend of Chris Angel and Russell Brand. But that works.

The casting is top notch. Anton Yelchin is fast talking, self deprecating, and likable as Charlie. Imogen Poots is smoking inferno hot — and 21st century feisty/competent — as Amy. Hers is a career to watch, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her carrying a movie in the next year or two. The rest of the cast is fun too. But it’s Colin Farrell that steals the show with his visceral new take on the ancient killer. Farrell’s Jerry isn’t so slick or romantic as the classical vampire, but he brings a feral intensity to the role which is extraordinarily predatory. Supremely confident, this Jerry starts off the movie as a mere “human” predator, clearly a man not to be trusted with the ladies. But when he senses the kids are on to him, he doesn’t just depend on the defense of disbelief that the original did (although he does have some good fun with this) but goes straight for the jugular — literarily and figuratively. Part white trash, part serial killer, part vampire, he’s all around delicious to watch.

Noxon’s script is full of dark humor and quippy (but not too campy) lines. The story has been rearranged to suit modern tastes. Essentially act 1 has been compressed to almost nothing. Gone is the first third of the movie where the characters (although not the audience) are trying to sort out exactly what they’re dealing with. Instead, we open with vampire, and by scene three (perhaps 4-5 minutes) Charlie’s friend Evil is desperately trying to convince him that the new neighbor Jerry is a vampire. The movie makes no bones about confirming this either. It leaps right into fang games and breaks into a very extended second act filled with big chase and action scenes. This could have ruined the film, but the scenes are slick and intense. The final showdown perhaps felt a little rushed, and there was at least one major story error (the vampires show up in Vegas at exactly the wrong time and place with no explanation of how they knew to be there), but none of this really detracts from the fun and mayhem.

The effects are top notch and don’t get in the way too much. Sure they’re gratuitous, but they’re supposed to be. The editing is more classic, not the frantic mess that’s popular these days. And the cinematography was often quite striking. Certain shots were highly memorable: particularly both fang outs (Jerry and another), the stripper’s final number, and many others.

So vampire fans, go see.

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The Eagle

Title: The Eagle

Director/Stars: Channing Tatum (Actor), Jamie Bell (Actor)

Genre: Period Adventure

Year: 2011

Watched: July 7, 2011

Summary: Decent.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

It’s interesting that in the last year or so there have been two movies about the Roman legion “lost” in North Britain during the Hadrianic period. The other is Centurion which I review here. It just goes to prove that Hollywood loves to copy. Two volcano movies? Two Wyatt Earp films? Two Lambada films?

And, to boot, it’s unlikely the legion was actually “lost” (as in militarily). More likely it was just disbanded and the sketchy historical record makes it seem to have disappeared.

In any case, The Eagle is less stylized, and perhaps less anachronistic in terms of it’s action and look than Centurion. However, it doesn’t work as well. Centurion is a very fine chase movie, with almost no character development. The Eagle tries for the latter, with mixed success. The first half works best. Our hero, Centurion Marcus, is posted (on request) to a fort in Britain, proves himself and is injured, then gets shipped out to his uncle’s villa to recover. I liked this opening section, and the film is very well researched from a visual standpoint. The scenery and costumes are great. They didn’t, however, get as much right involving the way in which the Roman army is organized. They insisted on using modern terms like “duty roster” and “honorable discharge.” Roman soliders (of this period) weren’t enlisted out of civilian life. They were either senatorial/imperial appointees (mostly officers) or serving a fixed (20+ year) service.

But I did like this early section. The battle sequences were well done. I liked the crazy druid and his chariot (still in use then by tribal groups in Britain). I liked the legionaries fighting in formation (mostly).

But after recovering, Marcus makes the ridiculous decision to go north of Hadrian’s wall (into enemy Scotland) by himself, accompanied only by a celtic slave who owes him his life. His mission, taken upon himself, is to recover the Eagle (battle standard) lost by his father a decade or so before. He has no idea where it is. Scotland is a big place, full of celts and picts. They don’t like Romans.

But he blunders right into it after riding across some gorgeous wet looking scenery. Again, landscape and costumes look amazing. The movie also doesn’t have a lot of CG, which is good. The natives feel very… well native. I was reminded visually of The New World — a movie of stunning visual lushness about the Jamestown colony. After all that we have an encounter with this seal tribe, a fictionalized Northern British coastal tribe. Their look and ceremonies are wonderfully depicted. Marcus has a bit of slave/master reversal with his friend, but eventually the two grab the eagle and make a run for it, followed by a showdown.

The finale devolved into a kind of anachronistic “all cultures are equal” kind of thinking that just did not exist in the second century. Not only didn’t it exist then, it didn’t even exist during World War I, or any time in between. This modern, intensely modern, way of thinking was formulated during the 20th century. Sure a few people may have thought this way — slightly this way — in the 18th and 19th centuries. But precious few.

Romans. No.

The Roman’s were actually very accommodating and tolerant of foreign cultures and races, radically so compared to medieval Europe, incorporating them in great numbers into their polity. But this stemmed not from any sense of cultural relativism, but from an intense pragmatism, and a world-crushing confidence in the ability of Roman society to absorb and transform.

But back to the film. Overall, I enjoyed it, but mostly from a visual and historical standpoint. The costumes, locations, and sets really are fantastic. It has a pretty ancient feel — ignoring some of the dialog. It’s not nearly as satisfying an adventure movie as Centurion. But it tried to be more. I also appreciate the extremely well done more traditional style of filmmaking. This is no 300, full of garish comic book stylization and whacky CG.

For more film reviews, click here.

On Stranger Tides

Title: Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides

Director/Stars: Johnny Depp (Actor), Ian McShane (Actor), Rob Marshall (Director)

Genre: Pirate Fantasy

Read: May 28, 2011

Summary: Better than 2 or 3.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This post isn’t so much a review of the 4th Pirates installment, but an little digression on its amusing relationship to one of my favorite books. Still, I’ll mention a few things about the film:

On Stranger Tides is a major improvement over Pirates 2 and 3 (blech). It feels more like a prequel to the first film (although technically it’s a straight sequel). Gone are Orlando and Knightly, and the plot focuses mostly on Jack Sparrow and some of the other baddies like Barbarossa and the new Blackbeard (played by the always likable Ian McShane). The plot is a bit of a retrenchment, involving a hectic quest for the Fountain of Youth. It’s more contained, more classically swashbuckled, with a welcome elimination of giant krakens, the afterlife, pirate councils, and ludicrous giant whirlpool ship battles. As such, if you can ignore the gapping plot holes and the merely token setup, it’s much more satisfying and fun to watch. It rates fairly close to the original, which is actually a pretty damn good movie — albiet a guilty pleasure for sure. The CGI is also much reduced. Not that it isn’t in nearly every frame, but it’s more contained and less bombastic. Structurally the elimination of the Orlando/Knightly thing also simplifies the whole character focus.

Now, on to the reason I’m writing this post. When I first saw the preview a year or so ago I was struct by the subtitle (On Stranger Tides) and the fact that the plot involved Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth. I was instantly reminded of one of my three favorite Tim Powers novels, On Stranger Tides, about the same. Now This is a 1987 novel, and I read it in the 90s. But Powers is one of my favorite authors, and probably one of the biggest influences on my own writing (at least my first novel, The Darkening Dream). He blends history, the occult, and fantasy in an artful and seamless way. Anyone who hasn’t read him must immediately buy and read The Anubis Gates, one of my all time favorite novels. The original novel (On Stranger Tides) is a creepy and heavily researched story about Blackbeard’s maniacal search for immortality. It’s pretty brilliant and quintessential Powers. Much darker and scarier than this film.

Pirates IV is well… a Pirates of the Caribbean movie that involves Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth. That’s about as far as it goes. Unless I missed something, the only other elements borrowed from the novel are a vague mention of zombies and the fact that when we meet Blackbeard his beard has smoldering flames hidden inside. This is a well documented feature of the man, as he claimed to be a priest of the voodoo god Baron Samedi whose magical totem is smoldering flame. This famous engraving shows the details. In any case the book is really cool and much more interesting than the film.

What’s interesting here is that Disney put “suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers” in the credits and felt it needed to option the novel just to include the two basic elements of Blackbeard and the Fountain. Nothing else.

Hollywood.

Although I’m glad that Mr. Powers got at least some kind of payday as a result — he deserves it.

Movie Review: Thor

Title: Thor

Director/Stars: Chris Hemsworth (Actor), Natalie Portman (Actor), Kenneth Branagh (Director)

Genre: Comic-book Action

Read: May 9, 2011

Summary: Weird.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Other than Marvel’s apparent desire to pull a kind of cinematic equivalent of the 1980s “Secret Wars” there really aren’t a lot of reasons why this movie needed making. It’s actually kind of bizarre, and I can’t really imagine that the Thor (as in comic) audience is immense. Although maybe I’m wrong. But I’m going to comment on it both a writer/viewer and as a historian of the mythological. Despite being a big Marvel fan in the 80s, I never read Thor itself.

It’s competently cast. Everyone plays their roles as they should, and it’s actually a kinda fun movie to watch, particularly the parts with Thor in the “real world.” This is reminiscent of the scenes in Superman 2 where General Zod kicks ass in that town after arriving on earth.

But notice I say “the parts in the real world.” Because a good percentage, at least half, of Thor takes place off in the strange CGI worlds of Asgard and Jotunheim. After a two-second intro with Natalie Portman (hot but wasted) on Earth we are instantly transported into a giant backstory tour of these bizarre places, complete with voiceover by Anthony Hopkins as “all-father Odin.” There is no attempt to fit this information naturally into the narrative, just a ginormous CGI info-dump. The whole mythology has my head spinning, and I love mythologies. It certainly borrows liberally from cookie-cutter components of Norse myth, but its more like Stan Lee learned what he needed to know from Deities and Demigods (a favorite book of mine circa 1982!). I’m still coming to terms with the weirdness of fusing Norse myth and some kind of alien outer space cosmology. I’m not even really sure which it was supposed to be. Are they aliens that mankind interpreted as gods (most probably) or actually just gods?

There is a lot of cool looking stuff, but there is certainly no attempt to capture the nature of ancient polytheistic deity where gods ARE/EMBODY/SUBSUME multiple aspects of natural and physiological phenomenons. Not that I expected this. Still, one can always hope. There are occasionally masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth.

Well in any case, while the imagery is kinda like Valhalla meets Star Wars episode 3 cityscape, the whole Asgardian world just doesn’t make any sense. These like super immortal aliens lounge around with their dark age Viking stylings. And they love hand to hand combat. At least they mostly have beards (HISS directed at films about clean-shaven Ancient Greek men). The action in Asgard/Jotunheim also suffers from the way too much CGI factor, particularly the parts on Jotunheim where the five heroic actors are the only non computer elements. The giant legion of frost giants and the bigass ice-troll creature had that weightless feel. Not as bad as in a repulsive pile of excrement like Van Helsing (the film), but bad.

Still, along with the competent casting we do have competent — albiet uninspired — writing. The film, despite the INCREDIBLY weird mythology, is watchable and makes complete sense when taken at a scene by scene level. This is far far more than I can say of a turd like the aforementioned Van Helsing or various Michael Bey type movies. Maybe it stems from the odd choice of Kenneth Branagh as director (he must have needed to refresh his bank account). In Thor, the characters and their relationships are perfunctory, but they do have a kind of (cinematic) clarity. This basically made it fairly enjoyable. And to tell the truth, if they had built the whole film out of Thor on Earth, focusing on his relationship with the underused Ms. Portman, it could have been a good film.

Instead it was interesting, in a weird crazy mythological way.

If you’re curious about some real myth, check out Satyr plays!

Back to the Future Part III

Title: Back to the Future Part III

Director/Stars: Michael J. Fox (Actor), Christopher Lloyd (Actor), Robert Zemeckis(Director)

Genre: Time Travel Comedy

Year: 1990

Watched: March 31, 2011

Summary: Ug. What happened?

 

The end of part II leaves us with this sweet little setup. And then Back to the Future Part III just craps all over it.

Really this is barely a time travel movie. Basically Marty just pops back to 1885 to save Doc from being shot by Biff’s great-grandfather (again played by the same actor). The DeLorean has run out of gas… in 1885, so they have to figure out how to get it up to 88 miles an hour. Answer locomotive. This is a reverse of, but nearly the same, as the gimmick from the first movie with having to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of power via lightning bolt. Oh, and Doc falls in love.

What follows is a pretty silly, downright camp, little western pastiche. And that’s about it.

As I said, there isn’t much of the time travel and paradox fun we had in the first two films. But there is more rehash of the same jokes. Michael J Fox plays another McFly family member. Although one has to wonder why his great-grandmother still looks like Lea Thompson when she married into the family in the 50s! And the Fox genes must be dominant over the Glover ones. Oh we also get the “Biff eats manure” joke again. There’s also Doc’s little romance. I know it’s supposed to be sweet, but it really wasn’t doing it for me. Nothing really did, sorry.

This is only the second time I’ve seen the film (compared to like 15 times for part I and 5+ for part II). I remember being massively disappointed in the theater in 1990 (maybe even on opening night). I don’t feel any differently 21 years later.

I hope they don’t do some awful part IV that’s on par with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Check out the Back to the Future review Part I here.

Or my review of part II here.

Back to the Future Part II

Title: Back to the Future Part 2

Director/Stars: Michael J. Fox (Actor), Christopher Lloyd (Actor), Robert Zemeckis (Director)

Genre: Time Travel Comedy

Year: 1989

Watched: March 30, 2011

Summary: Lots of time travel, and fun!

 

Following up on such a gem of a movie as 1985’s Back to the Future (my review here) must have been a daunting task. And it occasioned part II and part III being filmed together, and released only 6 months apart. As far as I know this was the first time this kind of joint production was ever done.

In any case, I always liked part II, particularly since it has the most time travel of the three, and certainly the most complex examination of the basic principle of time manipulation. It starts with a literal repeat of the last 3 minutes of BTTF (although they must have reshot some of it because they inexplicably replace Claudia Wells with Elisabeth Shue as the girlfriend — not that this lame duck role matters. They then pop into 2015, where Hilldale Ca is both the same and very different. The technological inovations proposed are pretty amusing, and most of them still haven’t happened in 2011. Again, where’s my hoverboard? But they missed a few things — like the cel phone, or the death of the fax machine.

Anyway, while avoiding paradox, and just having run with the same cast of actors playing different ages, characters, (and genders), Biff manages to steal the time machine, bring it back to 1955, and give himself a sports almanac. Then he inexplicably brings the DeLorean back to the good guys. Go figure! When they travel back to 1985 they find Biff’s nefarious influence has trashed the entire town and made a blade runner-esque hell of the place. There are some good moments here again paralleling the now standard running jokes with each character. Marty waking up to versions of his mother. The principal as bad ass with an axe to grind, etc.

Once they figure out how all this mess got rolling, back to 1955 they go to sort it out. This involves a parallel track recreation of the first movie’s main events without disturbing these. This is great fun, revisiting the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance from a different perspective. As far as I know, this is the benchmark scene for a two-pass time travel-type scenario. The car chase at the end however, is a bit tedious. And why, may we ask, is it possible for Marty to call doc on a walkie-talkie from the back of Biff’s convertible, while Biff is about 2 feet away in the front seat? I don’t know about you, but when I’m alone in a car and someone has a conversation in the back seat, I generally notice.

The film ends with an awesome setup for the third part. I love the Western Union bit. But watching all three back to back as I did, I could have lived without ALL THREE movies replaying the footage of the Doc at the clock-tower.

These problems aside the movie is great fun. Other reviewers seem to find the time travel antics byzantine in this outing, but this is exactly what I loved about this film. At least it dares to create an alternate present, and then undo it. True there are a few moments where the cast has to answer audience questions in near straight exposition. For example, when Marty and Doc head from messed-up 1985 to 1955, but leave Jennifer (the useless Elisabeth Shue) behind, Marty has to ask why, and Doc launches into a whole explanation about how the time continuum will fix itself around them.

Again the technical transfer on the new blu-ray versions is awesome. This was always a slick film, with the future scenes in particular filled with fun effects. It holds up perfectly well. There is the occasional shot where the rotoscoping is obvious (compositing has gotten a lot better in the 22 years, Cliffhanger being, I think, the first film to use the new digital compositing). But these minor issues don’t date the film at all. Now if only they wrote a better part III.

Check out the Back to the Future Part I review here.

Or, coming soon, a review of part III.

For more 80s films, About Last NightBetter Off Dead, or The Sure Thing.

Back to the Future

Title: Back to the Future

Director/Stars: Michael J. Fox (Actor), Adrian Paul (Actor), Christopher Lloyd (Actor), Robert Zemeckis (Director)

Genre: Time Travel Comedy

Year: 1985

Watched: March 29, 2011

Summary: Still a jewel box of a script.

 

Because my second novel is about time travel, I’ve been trying to read and watch (or re-watch) as many time travel books and films as I can (not that I haven’t previously mined the genre). Although I’ve probably seen BTTF 15 times, it’s been a  few years, more than 10 for sure.

I bought the new blu-ray Anniversary Trilogy too. This is a NICE restoration. The film looks as good as it did when I saw it right after getting back from summer camp in 1985, maybe better. And this was a slick slick film at the time. Really, other than a bit of noticeable rotoscoping, it could be a 2011 film.

Except it’s a lot better. The script and the editing make sense!

Because this is a few years before Top Gun would precipitate the precipitous marketing-driven decline of filmmaking, BTTF is simultaneously incredibly commercial and incredibly good. This script, by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, is tight tight tight. I can only imagine how many passes it underwent because there is not one line out of place. You all know the story, but if you watch it again pay attention to how in the first 5 minutes everything you need to know is setup. Marty’s parents met in 1955 when Grandpa hit George McFly was his car (“We never did understand what he was doing on that road anyway.” Lorraine says). They go to the “Enchantment under the Sea Dance.” That same year Doc Brown got the idea for the time machine. Libyans have stolen some plutonium, it’s under Doc’s bed. In the next 5 minutes Doc teaches us everything we need to know about the time machine. Bang bang, all the ducks are lined up.

Then all this setup pays off over the next hour and a half. Every line. When we see that George McFly is in the road because he was a peeping tom and falls out of the tree, it’s oh so much funnier knowing that this is how he met his wife. And knowing that, when Marty screws up that meeting… changes are set in motion. Changes he has to fix. The parallelism between the present (1985) and past (1955) are contrived and slapstick but a joy to watch. We here about Uncle Joey in jail in the present, we get the “get used to that view” wisecrack about baby Joey behind the crib bars. We’re used to it now, we’ve seen it a lot of times, but this is a clever clever script.

And the casting couldn’t be better. For this kind of lovable goofball, Michael J. Fox is deservedly beloved. Christopher Lloyd steals the show with his over the top Doc (“Thank God I’ve still got my hair!”). Lea Thompson is a babe as Marty’s mom. Great writing great acting, what more could we want? And we have top notch production, music, and effects too. None of it looks dated on blu-ray.

Very interesting now, 25 years later, realizing that the 1985 of the story is almost as far back in time now as the 1955 was then. And 1955, that’s 56 years ago! Wow. So in a way, that adds an extra time travel jump to the whole thing. Which gets even more amusing when we pick up again with Back to the Future II and it’s 2015 setting!

LOL Where are the hoverboards?

For my review of part II, click here.

For more 80s reviews of mine, check out About Last Night, Better Off Dead, or The Sure Thing.