OP-ED Series: Controversies For Popular Films: Part One: Wolf of Wall Street

December 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

True stories are always a tricky balancing act of forming a three-act structure with standard plot points with satisfying denouement and conclusion even if life goes on past the end credits. It’s also difficult to determine what details to maintain complete accuracy about and which to fudge for the sake of cinematic thrills. This year is seeing a bounty of controversy after the fact for some films that are experiencing, at least statistically, near universal praise. “Captain Phillips”, “12 Years A Slave”, “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are all based on true stories. In the cases of “Phillips”, “Slave” and “Wolf” they’re based on the protagonist’s memoirs. Theoretically all four films have been thoroughly researched and their accuracies vetted as best as possible with standard, if hopefully negligible dramatic licenses allowed for the sake of commercialization. The bottom line in Hollywood is, after all, whether a film makes a profit or not. Films turn multiple people into one composite character, truncate timelines, dress up the real life dialogue to better jump off the script’s pages and out of actors’ mouths in more entertaining or succinct fashions. All of this is to be expected.

However, in the age of the Internet, cynicism and particularly information, it’s a risky venture to fib too big on certain facts if a film is based on real people and events covered in minute detail by the media. All four of these films have experienced some degree of controversy by people questioning how honestly they portray the real life events. Before going into detail and without producing a laundry list of accusations levied against each respective film adaptation, I think it’s important to express my own personal opinion that I accept Hollywood’s story manipulation. I’ve written screenplays myself, including attempts at adapting other people’s books and using some of my own real life experiences to greatly inform plots for original works. To tell a completely accurate tale would render the proceedings not only dry and slow, but potentially convoluted or so simple as to be kind of boring from an audience’s perspective. Hollywood has formulas for a reason.

Now that I have vaguely played devil’s advocate, I have to say that the individual controversies are of varying degrees. “The Wolf of Wall Street” might be the most egregious of the true-life tales, as it is by all accounts basically accurate except for the tone of the film, which is clearly celebrating Jordan Belfort, or so it might seem. An op-ed in the LA Times pretty much sums up the historical accuracy issues with Terence Winter’s script and Martin Scorsese’s direction:

http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2013/12/wolf_of_wall_street_prousalis.php

Christina McDowell (neé Prousalis) has a valid point. She, along with the people Belfort fleeced and the rest of the family members affected by the convictions of their fathers and mothers who worked for Stratton Oakmont, left many people destitute, embarrassed and without options, financially speaking. The film barely addresses the people on the other side of the myriad of phone calls we see being made in the film. All those people lost money. The film’s assumption that their losses were all equally devastating would be a logical fallacy, but the fact is people were fleeced out of roughly one billion dollars in five short years. The film barely addresses these individuals through dialogue, let alone via conduits or composites in any scenes. The victims go nameless, faceless and are essentially written off as a dramatic loss to keep the proceedings lithe and fun. If we saw very serious scenes of families discussing their depleted finances, of children crying while their parents get into a shouting match over one or both of them being duped by a cold call (something most people, at least nowadays, have the wherewithal to ignore and can avoid thanks to the 2004 implementation of the Do Not Call Registry) then the events taking place around the main characters wouldn’t be so funny in context. Seeing as the film is billed as a comedy, it’s easy to see why the victims were left out. The question of entertainment value vs. accuracy [or, more accurately (natch) accountability) is one of a subjective nature. There is no clear answer on how, or even if, this story should’ve been told.

The film is based on the memoir written by Jordan himself, so it makes sense that most of the scenes would revolve around what Jordan experienced himself or was intimately familiar with through his associates. By that measure, it makes perfect sense we never see the victims and Jordan himself never appears to feel bad. After all, he knowingly committed these crimes of price inflating, pumping and dumping stocks for his own monetary gain to the tune of around $200 million, give or take. We get to see his Lamborghinis, his associates’ Rolls Royces, his expensive penthouse apartment, his even more expensive Long Island mansion. It’s clear that though Jordan might be sorry he was eventually caught and convicted, he has no apologies about living the high life for five years. Therefore, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter were simply being accurate in so far as the source material (Belfort’s auto-biography “The Wolf of Wall Street”) portrayed things.

Belfort does not appear to be a contrite man, nor do his co-conspirators. Even through carefully worded statements expressing remorse for their misdeeds, the perpetrators of Stratton Oakmont’s crimes seem like their words are carefully crafted media friendly quotes designed by expensive and loyal lawyers, rather than coming from their own repentant hearts. The question then becomes, what is more important- accuracy towards the film’s subjects or repudiation of their immorality on the part of the film’s makers? As I said before, it’s a subjective issue and therefore without a definitive answer. I hold my own grudges towards people I feel have wronged me in the past, but what good is it to see them suffer? I’m a bigger man than that. Seems like critics and pundits should take a similarly high road and accept the film for what it is, along with Jordan’s books and not for what they aren’t: apologetic.

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

September 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Gerard Butler as missionary Sam Childers in "Machine Gun Preacher"

Written by Jason Keller

Directed by Marc Forster

Starring Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon

Machine Gun Preacher is quite an epic title for quite an epic movie. It manages to spell out the crux of the story in big bold letters without giving away what you’re going to see going into the film, because there’s nothing else quite like it. That’s not to say Preacher is a perfect film (far from it) but its heart, like its real life hero, is in the right place and though its tactics (ham fisted dialogue and heart string highway robbery) might sometimes come off as a little cheap, also like true life hero, the film’s less than honorable style is nonetheless effective in achieving its goal.

Sam Childers is a biker with a horrible past. Hardcore drug addiction, rampant acts of violence and robbery, including a nice pile of bodies in his wake, but he one day he finds God and gives all that up. The next day he finds the plight of the Sudanese people in the form of a guest speaker at his church, looking for handouts. Before we know it, Sam is in the Sudan, building new structures for local villages. While other Christian missionaries and volunteers go North to the major cities looking for parties during their weekends off, Sam goes south with soldiers, to bear witness to refugee tent camps and rebel army horrors, ranging from piles of dead bodies to a child who has his legs blown off by a mine right in front of Sam.

This changes Sam completely, gives him a purpose in life. He returns home, builds his own church, designed to accommodate wayward souls like himself, starts his own construction company, saves some money and returns back to Sudan to build an orphanage.

What follows afterwards is a series of very similar sequences of Sam killing rebels and collecting dozens of child soldiers to save and protect them, coming home to a strained marriage and unresponsive rich people who’s money he needs to fund his missions in Sudan. Sam goes from being a good Christian to being something else entirely beyond religion. He’s a one man army, a rebel General on a mission to save the children and kill anybody who gets in his way. He gives up everything for his cause, nearly giving up his sanity as well in the process.

What writer Jason Keller, director Marc Forster and star and executive producer Gerard Butler have crafted here is a finely tuned b-action movie coupled with an art house international message film. Neither side of the production is top notch in regards to subtlety- the early scenes in the film are mind-numbingly self-conscious, trying to hammer home an entire lifetime of bad behavior on Sam’s part in a few short scenes in order to get him Saved by God and soul searching in Africa by the 25 minute mark.

After that, however, the film finds itself and presents a reasonably engaging series of sequences that offer up plenty of bravura acting from Gerard Butler, who is magnificent here, given the genre and gives Michelle Monaghan a fun tough chick performance that won’t garner Awards favor but is a respectable notch on her career’s belt. Michael Shannon shows up as Butler’s partner in crime and fellow lost soul whom Sam Childers tries to save. Shannon once again steals the scenes he is in, bringing a quiet intensity while offering some wry comedic twang to his delivery to keep his character human and likeable.

This is Gerard Butler’s film all the way, however. He dominates the film, appearing in nearly every scene and showing a fairly believable transformation from criminal to modern day saint- with a machine gun. Butler has an ability to emote quite intensely with his facial expressions, going from happy to pissed off to sad without much effort. There’s a depth to this performance that will be overlooked come awards time because the script for the film is quite heavy handed, moralistic and wants a little too badly to be important.
This film was certainly made for entertainment first, but there’s clearly a message here and a purpose behind the film. The film makers want the message of Sam Childers to be heard, aside from the fact that his story is quite extraordinary and larger than life.

This is a good film but Forster is not a very subtle director. Go back and watch Monster’s Ball or Quantum of Solace. With heavy handed material he has a penchant for beating his audience over the head with his theme or the overarching style of the piece until you’re going in circles from the unrelenting nature of his storytelling. The bleak repression of Monster’s Ball, the balls-to-the-wall emotionally charged violence of Quantum of Solace or the endless nature of Sam Childer’s efforts in Machine Gun Preacher. He’s showing a more and more deft control of his action scenes in each progressive film, portraying chaotic gun battles in more understandable ways, but he could take his acting direction down a notch, perhaps reigning in his actors’ scenery chewing.

Sam Childers is a very interesting man and I’m glad he turned his life around in such a profound and unusual manner. Gerard Butler showed some impressive range in this while sticking closely to the genre- historic action- that launched his career in the first place and Machine Gun Preacher is the kind of pulpy message film the world hasn’t been waiting for, but deserves.

Imagine the goal Steven Segal set out to achieve with On Deadly Ground, his environmentalist movie about oil drilling that included lots of bad guys being shot or round house kicked to death, then class it up a little bit with better acting, better direction and better writing and Machine Gun Preacher is what you get. Nothing wrong with that, but even message films can have too much gouda for their own good.

Higher Ground (2011)

September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Vera Farmiga struggles with the word of God in her directorial debut "Higher Ground"

Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Matcalfe, based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs

Directed by Vera Farmiga

Starring Vera Farmiga, Dagmara Domicczyk, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Taissa Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin, Norbert Leo Butz, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sean Mahon, Michael Chernus

Higher Ground is a deeply personal, unbiased and non-judgmental look inside the personal spiritual journey of one Born Again Christian whose had faith all her life, but who struggles with the stringent lifestyles of her peers in contrast to her natural personality and sense of wonder for the world around her. Her logical and intellectual side, which encourages her individualism and self-exploration wrestles with the paternal and dogmatic society (read: pseudo cult) that she’s enmeshed herself in.

Vera Farmiga is nothing short of spellbinding as star and director of ‘Higher Ground’, based on the memoirs of a real life former Born Again Christian named Carolyn S. Briggs, who left Christianity and converted to Judaism in her 30’s, also getting an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas.

Higher Ground breathes new, unbiased life into religious drama; These aren’t zombies of God, they’re products of their environment and people who have chosen this life through careful consideration and personal experience. The film is smart enough to acknowledge their humanity, particularly with fantasy sequences for Farmiga’s character Corinne, visualizing her inner thoughts of sexuality, humor and grace.

Farmiga never lets us get comfortable amongst the small congregation she depicts, nor does she portray them as ignorant or anything to laugh at. There are sequences of genuine humor which come out of the limits their faith places on these all too human individuals, sequences of such ridiculousness that they can’t help but laugh at themselves, though their faith is no less genuine and their lives no less devoted to their faith.
As Corinne, Farmiga presents us with someone who is neither sheep nor heretic. She shows us the life of someone born into the Christian faith who organically grows away from it through her own intellectual awakenings as she begins to question the logic of her fellow parishioners in the wake of illogical choices they make in straightforward situations.

Farmiga’s character is as in love with Christianity as they are, but she responds to it differently. She was born into a Christian but mostly secular household (John Hawkes shows up as her normal blue collar father) and finds religion later in life through sheer happenstance of a reaction to personal strife. She has sermons that boil up from deep within her heart and when she’s asked to speak to her fellow congregants she can’t help but preach. She’s reminded that it is not the place of the women to preach. The women in their modest flower pattern dresses, ceding power and intellectual propriety to the men of the congregation, all nice men to be certain, but the sexism is palpable and most participants are willing, though Corinne can’t help but be herself, a woman who read historically significant, intellectual challenging and very secular literature, who finds friendship in people outside the church, who questions the path she is on, a question that will be her religious downfall and personal triumph.

An example of this is her friend Annika (Dagmara Domicczyk), a fellow congregant who speaks in tongues when praying and claims to have an intense connection to God, but who also expresses her humanity through healthy activities like an obsession with the dimensions of her husband’s penis and a clever trick to get out of traffic tickets. She makes Corinne feel like a normal woman with a normal friendship, giving them breathing room to be their natural selves, independent of their faith. When a tragedy rips Annika’s friendship from Corinne and Corinne must watch in horror as the congregation chalks bad fortune up to God’s will, it pushes her over the edge of merely questioning her faith, straight into a desire to change her life.

Farmiga’s casting is exceptional, using her younger sister as the teenage version of her character and filling the cast with non-traditional personality types, none of whom would immediately strike you as being particularly religious. They’re all quite young, for the most part, and very congenial without seeming preachy. Their lives revolve around their love of God, but it comes out mostly in the privacy of their own home or in the comfort of their church. There isn’t a character singled out to function as a villain or a true adversary, there are no big showdowns and the film isn’t tantamount to heresy. It’s merely one person’s journey through the trials and tribulations of faith. Her husband, played by Joshua Leonard, is phenomenally relatable as a man who finds comfort in Christianity, but is not ruled by it. It’s his blanket of safety in the face of all of life’s problems and disappointments and her congregation is full of very normal people who have simply found their safety net in faith. Many of the other characters share his traits of self-doubt and comfort in Christ.

The point of Higher Ground is that Corinne fell through that safety net and had to find another path for herself, which is as legitimate as life choice as anyone who would choose faith.
The film’s brilliance is in the subtlety of its story structure. When the film starts it isn’t clear where it’s heading or how it will get there, we never see any significant dramatic signposts; this is a gradual and subtle journey of self-discovery of one woman.

Farmiga has established herself with Higher Ground as a directorial force to be reckoned with, showing restraint in keeping her characters and scenes grounded, while showing equal control and willingness speak some fearless and soul baring dialogue, showing the discrepancy between striving for perfection in belief and the realities of being humanly imperfect.

She has crafted the most personal, fully realized and well rounded drama of 2011 thus far and my choice for this year’s best picture so far.

The Whistleblower (2011)

September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rachel Weisz as 'The Whistleblower'

Written by Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan

Directed by Larysa Kondracki

Starring Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and David Hewlett

The Whistleblower is exactly what it sounds like- an altruistic and honest person observes horrifically corrupt practices and risks her life to expose atrocities to the world. It’s a story that needed to be told, the woman’s bravery and humanity is honorable to say the least and downright heroic to say the most.
However, films are as much entertainment as they are history lessons or political messages. As a message film has to find a balance between the lessons it wants to teach us while still managing to make our experience in the theater a magical one. Whether it’s style like Syriana and Traffic had or heart like Hotel Rwanda, other contemporary fact-based films meant to teach us something about the horrors and triumphs of humanity must offer us more than an Ethics lesson and must feel somehow relatable. The Whistleblower fails to find that balance.

The other thing a film must do is rely on a screenplay that is both structured enough to let us know we’re in good story telling hands while being uninhibited enough with its storytelling that we must pay attention to a film because the story isn’t on autopilot. The Whistleblower fails at this as well.

Rachel Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkavac, a Nebraska cop who is in desperate need of some extra cash or a transfer to a Georgia state trooper job so that she can be closer to her daughter, whom her ex husband has primary custody of. Her superior offers her an alternative; UN peacekeeper in Bosnia for 6 months and $100,000 tax free dollars. Six months of suffering through a complicated mess of post-war racial tensions in a country ripped to shreds, then she can move wherever she wants and be with her daughter. It’s a big decision but in the right circumstances, an easy one. Kathryn takes the job and immediately is thrust into what appears to be standard issue police work in Bosnia, making house calls to domestic assault victims while training local police, who only take the jobs for the money and have no real concern for their fellow citizens. Kathryn takes a special interest in keeping herself honest, working as hard as she would stateside. This leads to an immediate promotion to head of Female Affairs, following up on any violence or crime directed specifically at women, sex trafficking in particular.

We follow two of the sex workers initially, beginning in their home country as they get fake passports to travel to Bosnia to work at a ‘hotel’, but the film quickly loses track of them in their efforts to show what an amazing human being Bolkavac is.

Very quickly she runs into rampant corruption as sex slaves are shuttled around a circus of UN and other international peace keeping officials, allowing pimps and traffickers to continue running their businesses in exchange for cash and free sex. Occasionally someone appears willing to help her, but then they pull their punch because the corruption is too rampant to bother fighting.

I understand films take liberties with facts to make stories more harrowing or to simplify a narrative into something that is digestible in two hours, but I simply found it hard to believe that Bolkavac was the only honorable person working over in Bosnia. She’s helped by an independent Internal Affairs investigator played by David Strathairn, who is strong here. Many of his performances feel stilted and wooden, as if his voice has lost the ability to emote, but here he comes across as human and quite engaging as a man as passionate as Bolkavac, but realistic about their chances at doing any real good. Vanessa Redgrave and Monica Bellucci show up as Bolkavac’s bosses, two women who are on Bolkavac’s side, as much as they can be.

The other UN peacekeepers, including UN Officials, are portrayed like grinning evil doers who are only missing their Snidely Whiplash mustaches to twirl at the impressiveness of their fiendish endeavors.
The film tries to present an air of constant threat and peril to ramp up the thrilling nature of the story but ultimately it’s a battle of paperwork and hearsay, with Bolkavac battling bureaucracy more so than pure unadulterated evil.

As Bolkavac, Weisz is decent. She sports a credible if flat American accent and the script tries its hardest to make her One of the Boys when it counts at the beginning of the story to put our guard down, then turn her into an emotion driven woman of tears and grandstanding speeches later on both for Weisz the actress to have her Big Scene and for us to remember that she’s a lone woman amongst men, trying to save women- girls, really- who can’t help themselves.

The other thing the film does well is to remind us when the story takes place, in 1999, showing us slow Dial Up computers, old screen icons, VHS players and those massive plastic boom boxes that were all the rage in 1999. I commend the film for its era-accuracy and the minor touches it makes to hit these points home.

Once again, the goal of the film is commendable and the story needs to be heard, but a narrative film must be as much entertainment as it is enlightening and The Whistleblower fails as entertainment. It’s dour, heavyhanded and stringently story beat-heavy from the moment the film starts right until it ends. The expositional dialogue is glaring in its mechanical nature and the film shows no respect to the villains of the story; they might as well be wearing black hats and drowning puppies while Weisz wears a white hat and sings Kumbayah.

The Whistleblower is a fantastic example of when the formulaic structure of a film can hurt its cause, even with the best intentions and strongest talents guiding the script.

The Debt (2011)

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sam Worthington in 'The Debt'

Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, adapted from the film “Ha-Hov” written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum

Directed by John Madden

Starring Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen and Tom Wilkinson

The Debt is a long-delayed, clunky espionage thriller based on the memoirs of a real life Mossad agent. It’s a film that goes back and forth between modern day and an incident in 1966, in which a trio of very young but dedicated Mossad agents are dispatched to find a Nazi war criminal on the run. They find him and capture him, prepared to torture him until he gives up information and admits to his identity. Their plan goes awry when the Nazi turns the tables on the inexperienced young agents, whom are already at odds over a tempestuous love triangle brewing between themselves.

Sam Worthington acquits himself nicely in this role, showing range and expression not yet even hinted at in his big budget action movies were accustomed to seeing him in. Jessica Chastain continues to prove her worth as an up and coming talent in a complicated role as the lone female Agent and younger version of Helen Mirren’s character. Marton Csokas does a fine job as a younger Ciaran Hinds, both of whom play the elder agent. Tom Wilkinson rounds out the cast in a small but vital role as the older version of Worthington.
It’s a complex and ambitious film that becomes somewhat clunky as director John Madden tries to split his running time between the present and the past, with many sections of the film dragging. Even as a story based on real life events, the filmmakers seem to pull their punches in their attempt to engage the audience with the dramatic aspects of the film, while doing a fine job with the more spy-oriented segments of violence and snooping.

It’s not a bad film, but there’s a reason the release has been delayed for so long; two halves don’t always make a whole. Neither the events of the past nor the repercussions that echo in the present provide enough material for their own film. Placed together the pace of the movie warbles between harrowing and stultifying with long slow builds to nothing in particular.

The two halves don’t gel well enough to justify the telling of this remarkable true story with an ending that is nonetheless quite powerful. We’ve seen better spy films, even the more accurate ones and we’ve simply seen better writing than what this film has to offer. It appears to be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen as we’re clearly witnessing at least two different films being forced into the same 2 hour narrative structure.
It’s a shame, because the performances are all top notch, the script just simply isn’t up to snuff.

Our Idiot Brother (2011)

August 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Paul Rudd is "Our Idiot Brother"

Written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz

Directed by Jesse Peretz

Starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, Rashida Jones, Steve Coogan, Adam Scott and T.J. Miller

Our Idiot Brother is the heartfelt crowd pleasing comedy of the year. It’s a very simple story about a friendly, naïve hippy named Ned who lives on an organic commune and enjoys an idyllic, simple life with his hippie girlfriend (replete with natty white person dreads) and his loveable Golden Retriever named Willie Nelson (you say the whole name when referring to him). As with most hippies, Ned has a casual relationship with marijuana and apparently believes that this makes it okay to sell to a uniform police officer. It’s questionable whether or not the officer’s tactics are entrapment or why the officer even bothers to ensnare the affable, harmless Ned with a drug bust, but it happens, despite Ned’s best intentions.

After getting out of jail Ned is forced to go live with his sisters because his shockingly negative hippie girlfriend has moved on to an equally pleasant and bearded hippie paramore (T.J. Miller) who’s winning quality is a lack of a rap sheet. Ned and the boyfriend even appear to hit it off at the same time Ned realizes he’s been romantically bamboozled.

Ned has no money and needs his sisters’ charity while culling together the funds to re-establish his off the grid hippie existence. He has three sisters; Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a rising journalist working with Vanity Fair; Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) a bisexual artist in a committed relationship with her tomboy girlfriend lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in greasy matted hair and oversized eye glasses and a pants suit); and Liz (Emily Mortimer) a stay at home mother married to a British trust fund backed wanna-be documentary film maker who doesn’t appear to show any real respect to anyone (Steve Coogan). Ned must rely on these people to keep him afloat and provide him with pocket money while he attempts to satisfy the conditions of his probation.

I won’t go into the details of what comes to pass once Ned is thrust upon his family, as that would ruin the fun of the movie, but I will say that Ned is a force of nature. He has no filter, he has no bad side. He is an honest, friendly guy who just wants to make people happy and live a peaceful existence. In our cut throat capitalist society Ned is like an oblivious Svengali wreaking havoc upon his unsuspecting upwardly mobile sisters who are all trying to get ahead in their lives in one way or another and Ned manages to open up massive gashes in the protective bubbles of self-delusion that they each live in, to one degree or another.

The sisters are each archetypes. The professional who is incapable of developing a meaningful relationship but whose perfect partner is right in front of her serving as a platonic best friend; The artsy but traditionally good looking lesbian who may not be as much of a lesbian as she thought she was and the sweet natured stay at home mother who can’t see what’s right in front of her, or perhaps chooses not to, for the sake of her idyllically put together family life. You’ve seen all of these women in other movies- too many to count. The one trend-bucking character in this group is Rashida Jones’ lesbian girlfriend, who is nothing but pleasant and sympathetic to Ned’s desire to free his dog Willie Nelson from the shackles of his ex’s indifference.

So while you’ve seen most of the other characters before in films, you’ve never seen Ned- At least not this degree of Ned. Ned’s only fault is that he has no faults. He is infuriatingly sweet, sincere, trusting, helpful and loving. The only thing he wants in this world is his dog Willie Nelson. Everything else can change with the tide, but Willie is embedded in Ned’s heart like nothing and nobody else.

There’s a point in the film where he has to turn down sex because it’s with a man. Ned feels terrible about this. He has to be reminded by friends that Ned is not gay, Ned is straight. It wasn’t wrong of him to turn down the gay sex. This is how infallibly and infuriatingly sweet Ned is. Paul Rudd imbues the character with such charm and brevity, such positivity that it’d be difficult to not like the film. It’s a uniquely perfect performance. He is Ned, through and through. You can see this person existing, because he’s not really an idiot. True idiots are hard to come by. Ned is a person who never grew up with spite, malice, competitiveness or drive in him. He just wants to exist and that causes problems for everybody else, who are clawing their way towards precariously perfect existences. Without Rudd’s impeccable performance none of this would be believable, script or no script. It’s the kind of comedic performance that transcends humor.

Our Idiot Brother is not a perfectly realized movie, but it is driven by a perfectly realized character, which enables me (and you, the viewer) to forgive the contrived conclusions to each respective story. Everything is wrapped up in neat little logical bows of sappy goodness that seem ludicrous by normal standards. However, as they’re set in motion by the irrepressibly positive and well meaning Ned, like him, we take it with a smile of satisfaction and pleasantry.

Fright Night (2011)

August 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

David Tennant and Anton Yelchin gear up for battle in Craig Gillespie's remake of 'Fright Night'

Written by Marti Noxon

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Starring Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and David Franco

I almost didn’t see Fright Night in theaters, because it wasn’t playing in any big new shiny state of the art multiplexes, nor was it playing in any of the neighborhood art house theaters that I feel smart and dutiful for patronizing. I almost didn’t see Fright Night in theaters because the only cinemas offering the movie were a bunch of rundown multiplexes that have seen better days. Theaters that were built in the late 80’s or early 90’s and were THE place to see big new releases up until about seven or eight years ago, when they were supplanted by even bigger and cooler theaters. Regal runs the chains that are aging poorly and AMC runs the big new behemoths. You can see, when you go to a Regal theater, all the failure of time passing faster than the chain could keep up with. Multiple snack counters built in around the dark and most vacant theater complex that are stripped of all devices and delicacies, with the snack bar relegated to a larger, centralized hub, as is the trend in newer theaters. The ceilings are planted sky high with mirrors and curly-cue fancy neon lettering announcing what each section of the theater is. It all looks chintzy and anachronistic by today’s standards. Well, I caved to seeing Fright Night in this kind of theater, because I had no alternative. I thank my lucky stars that I was forced to take in just such an environment when viewing the film.

Fright Night is a remake of a cult classic from the 1980’s by the same name. in this classic, a vampire played by Chris Sarandon (brother of Susan Sarandon) moves in next door to a horny teenage boy named Charlie Brewster. Charlie has a best friend named Evil Ed, played by one time cult icon Stephen Geoffreys (rumored to have developed a debilitating cocaine habit and horrific debt which led him down a dark path of prostitution and gay porn) who is obsessed with horror films and the macabre. When Sarandon moves in right next door to Charlie Brewster, Evil Ed convinces Charlie that the neighbor, Jerry, is a vampire. Jerry even has a live in friend/assistant, who is either his gay lover or a familiar (a wanna-be vampire who willingly becomes a vampire’s man servant in exchange for being allowed total access to a vampire’s world). Jerry is sophisticated and mysterious gentleman who indeed turns out to be a vampire and turns Charlie’s world upside down. The plot and basic story points of the remake are the same, for the most part. The original was filmed on a Hollywood backlot in a street that you’d recognize from many films, including Tom Hanks’ early star effort “The ‘Burbs”.

In this updated version, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a decidedly hip and socially conscious ex geek who has shunned ‘Evil’ Ed in favor of a hot girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and mainstream buddies (David Franco, younger brother of James Franco). Evil Ed is a dorky kid who hasn’t grown up yet, unlike his old friend Charlie. As played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Evil Ed is nothing more than a plot device; A simple way to definitively ‘out’ Jerry as a real life vampire and to create a few more mild difficulties for Charlie in the final act. Otherwise, the character is an after-thought in this version. To Mintz-Plasse’s credit, he’s taken Ed from an unequivocally campy film creation that had no place in reality and has turned him into a somewhat believable entity. This is due in large part to screenwriter Marti Noxon’s razor sharp script, employing some fantastic dialogue and understated sequences which expertly build tension and give us snacks of character development as we watch the film’s central mysteries unfold. Given that he must work within the relative confines of the original film’s plot points, his own additions are that much more impressive, particularly in scenes addressing Brewster’s uncomfortable transition from a sword playing geek to an unexpected ladies man, landing a decidedly hot girlfriend by eschewing all awkwardness and childlike wonder from his personality. The dialogue Noxon provides Poots with to justify her pursuit of Jerry and the foundations of their relationship feel genuine and thoughtful as far as Hollywood fantasy goes; particularly a line in which Poots’ Amy lists the fact that Charlie’s skin cleared up from early teen acne issues as one of the reasons she was dating him that manages to not feel mean or superficial, merely appreciative. A little bit of vain honesty goes a long way towards characters feeling genuine.

Where Evil Ed’s presence falls a bit short, the update of Jerry goes above and beyond. Instead of a creepy older gentleman with an awkwardly homoerotic familiar, Jerry is played by Colin Farrell as a very cool, friendly and driven vampire who oozes sex appeal and cool factor. There is no familiar, just Farrell. Farrell is the heart and soul of this version of Fright Night, which keeps its roots firmly in the 80’s, by completely owning his scenes. He isn’t phoning in this performance, this doesn’t feel like a paycheck role. It’s very fun, very creepy, very confident and completely devoid of ego. He’s serving the script here with a detached character that is more animal than man, living a life devoted to hunting and feeding. The way he sniffs the air and walks with hunched shoulders, his head drooped low, much like a wolf preparing for an assault. It’s an effortlessly fun performance that will likely go unheralded due to the genre and source material. If Farrell was an unknown he’d be getting high marks and notice for this role.

The updated setting from Small Town Anywhere, USA Hollywood Back Lot to a modern upscale housing development in Las Vegas acts as a stroke of genius on the filmmakers’ parts. First they utilize the weak housing market early on in the film to hint at what’s to come when we’re introduced to Charlie’s single mother, a realty agent, loading up ‘for sale’ signs in the back of her car, the sharpened ends for planting in front yards in obvious display looking like ‘roided out stakes. Later we’re exposed to a loop hole in vampire mythology that Jerry is exploiting by setting up shop in a neighborhood who’s occupancy is beleaguered by the economic downturn; empty houses or houses in between owners means that a vampire doesn’t have to be invited inside to hunt. Despite the modern setting there is still something anachronistic about the houses we see. They’re very uniform and bland. There’s a dark and empty sterility to many of the sets. Given the glitz and glamour of Vegas, the filmmakers do an interesting stylistic effort in which they seem to have purposefully darkened the films’ images. Even scenes in broad daylight have a shadow over them. It works wonders, evoking a long forgotten genuine sense of foreboding in modern Hollywood horror that the 80’s had down to a science.
Now, this could also be a result of having shot the film in 3D. I went to a 2D screening because I didn’t want my experience sullied by watching an already darkly photographed and dimly lit film to be tinted to illegal proportions by the shading of 3D-glasses and the double vision images of stuff coming off the screen. I could see the shots where they were most clearly employing 3D and it didn’t seem necessary or even additive for this film’s purposes.

The other change in the film that works beautifully in the reimagining of Peter Vincent; No offense to Roddy McDowell, but David Tennant should from now on be known as the definitive incarnation of Peter Vincent. Tennant’s (best known for his incarnation of the long running BBC sci-fi staple ‘Doctor Who’) Vincent is not a bitter old man who hosts a cheap local Saturday night Horror segment, but a wealthy, vapid Vegas showman who provides much of the comic relief. He’s like Criss Angel crossed with Russell Brand and he works beautifully. Tennant also provides the bulk of the comedy, though he only shows up sporadically, with the bulk of his scenes taking place in the final act as his character is given a chance to grow beyond his excessive fortune and showmanship into a real person with fears, emotions and a similarly personal drive to that of Charlie’s in search of Farrell’s head on a platter. The final showdown between Jerry, Charlie and Vincent isn’t particularly memorable or inventive, but it’s very satisfying at an emotional level given many of the conversations Charlie and Vincent have leading up to this moment.

Fright Night cost a reported $30 million to make, which is chump change by Hollywood standards. Given the very modest budget, director Craig Gillespie employs judicious and impressive use of special effects to go along with some nifty camera work, using complex tracking shots that are no doubt green screen or completely digital, but which blend seamlessly without distracting from the story. You get to see Farrell’s transformation between his palatable human form and his grotesquely animalistic vampire form including inhuman body movements and contortions in very cool manners. I was surprised with the film’s attention to detail in this respect, with scenes of Farrell’s character reacting to injury with unnaturally quick movements not looking hokey but genuinely frightening. There’s a particularly effective sequence involving a roaming single-shot perspective inside a moving car as it is being chased by another car, ending in a nice, subtle cameo that is an insider’s nod to the original for any devoted fan or film geek. There are also a few very obvious shots meant for the 3D showings of the film, including digital blood spurting into the air and some shots of objects moving directly towards the camera. None of them are necessary and feel shoehorned in to an otherwise lean and expertly told story.

This version of Fright Night probably doesn’t have the cult classic potential of the original, but it’s still a very refreshing take on the vampire genre and exhibits what will go down as an underrated performance from Colin Farrell in an underrated film that oozes creepy atmosphere while managing to maintain a light enough tone to keep things fun and acknowledge the ridiculous nature of any vampire story, especially in today’s oversaturated post-Twilight market. A true diamond in the rough, it’s a shame that it could only muster an $8 million opening weekend. Hopefully this intelligent and well made supernatural thriller will find an audience somewhere down the line and earn the fan base it so very much deserves- more so than its source material.

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