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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Horrible Bosses (2011)

July 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Charlie Day contends with Jennifer Aniston's unwanted sexual advances in 'Horrible Bosses'

Written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

Story by Michael Markowitz

Directed by Seth Gordon

Starring Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell with Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland and Bob Newhart

Comedy is all about trends. What made people laugh one year makes people scratch their heads, roll their eyes or simply stare blank faced another year. Currently, the comedic trend has taken on a Farrelly Bros. level of mean spiritedness, gross-out potential and blackness that is further embraced by the mainstream with each additional entry. Horrible Bosses is a perfect embodiment of this blackness.

This is a film with 3 stories about 3 miserable but gainfully employed 30-something men who feel that the level of personal insults and grief they receive from their respective bosses is tantamount to morally unjust and must be met not by filing a complain with their HR departments or court systems, but by way of death to their insufferable superiors. Jason Sudeikis is Kurt, a mild-mannered middle-management type who helps run a small, family owned chemical business that was created by a kindly old Donald Sutherland, but which is being purposefully run into the ground by his selfish, arrogant, greedy son, played by Colin Farrell with an impressive ‘balding’ wig and quite an attitude problem. Jason Bateman is Nick, whose situation isn’t much better, as he’s the preferred prison-style bitch of his arrogant, selfish boss played by Kevin Spacey in ‘Swimming with Sharks’ mode roided out to a degenerative level of corporate schmuckery. This is exemplified by Spacey insisting on Bateman being the first employee at work every day by 6 AM. At 6:02 they’ll have words and heads will roll. Charlie Day’s Dale makes up the third out of this trio of woebegotten but gainfully employed men. He’s an assistant dentail hygenist with the kind of problem most heterosexual men would pay to deal with. He’s engaged to a lovely young woman but his boss, Jennifer Aniston, wants nothing more than to get as sexually deviant with Dale every which way possible at every remotely opportune moment. It isn’t clear if she’s attracted to him or is a sexual predator dressed up as a dentist. Either way, our fantasy is his nightmare. Eventually, once the three realize that in these troubling economic times, it would be imprudent to simply quit their jobs, they decide to do the next most inconvenient but satisfying thing and kill their bosses.

First off, this is a funny movie. In some ways it’s frustrating because, like a Farrelly Bros. movie the center of this tale is gooey with moral fiber so no matter how crazy things get, it’s obvious that the writers will bring us back from the 9th circle of hell and leave us somewhere in the vicinity of justice and acceptability. All will end up right and our heroes will not be thrown to the lions. So while the outcome for our protagonists is clear from the get-go, the meandering path they take to enlightenment is nonetheless charming, hilarious, entertaining and satisfyingly dark. For whatever punches they pull with our heroes, they deliver 3-fold with their so-called horrible bosses. Spacey, Aniston and Farrell are conniving, selfish, dirty and display shockingly poor taste. In some ways Horrible Bosses suffers from action-movie syndrome of giving us somewhat square heroes in order to keep us invested in their ultimate triumph, leaving all the juicy stuff for the people we’re meant to root against. Spacey has the largest part of the 3 titular bosses, probably out of reverence for him as a legendary, Academy-Award winning actor. He’s a WASPy, angry man who isn’t as comically evil as Aniston or Farrell. Aniston clearly has the most fun with her character, a sexpot sex addict who, if she didn’t look as good as she does, would be number 1 on anybody’s shit list who wasn’t interested in her. As it stands in the film, they put us at a moral-sexual crossroads of either being frustrated by Charlie Day’s hatred for her or siding with Charlie’s better angels and empathizing with his plight.

Sudeikis has the most fun as a man who is very enthused about these murder ventures they’ve embarked on. He’s a bit of a lady’s man but has a strangely strict moral code that works out alright in his own head but clearly has some flaws in practice. He’s definitely becoming a humorous but good looking leading man, filling a void that nobody really left in recent years. Bateman is Bateman. Exasperated, too mature for his own good, but still somehow along for the ride.

Along the way they encounter a dubious hitman named Motherfucker Jones, which is Jamie Foxx in an extended cameo as a hilariously sensitive, vaguely experienced Ex-Con that the 3 wanna-be murderers enlist for his supposed expertise. The way his character plays out is satisfyingly ludicrous and not nearly as gangster as his name “Motherfucker Jones” might suggest.

The film was co-written by ex “Freaks and Geeks”/Apatow University alumnus John Francis Daley, who is still quite young. The level of detail and intelligence and strength of humor in Horrible Bosses bodes well for this young thespians even younger writing career.

Director Seth Gordon’s first film was the documentary “King of Kong” and his first feature was the equally over the top but conversely unfunny Holiday RomCom “Four Christmases” starring Reese Withserspoon and Vince Vaughn. His directing style works for our generation’s comedic sensibilities, as we’ve eschewed favor of over the top slapstick and clown-esque hijinks (like Jim Carrey) for more subtle humor that fits somewhere in realm of ‘realism’. The beauty of the film is that on some level many of the characters aren’t overtly funny- they could easily take the same characters and same dialogue and with different delivery and stylistic tweaks, make this a dark thriller. I think that’s the gift Seth Gordon has brought us with his toned down directing style.

All in all this is a high water mark for this generation of comedy, which exploded on the scene with ‘Bad Santa’ and has continued since. It’s dark and devious, willing to go to shocking lengths for a laugh, but shows us the its better angels when push comes to shove, proving that not even Hollywood is devoid of its morals in search of the almighty dollar.

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