Thursday, May 6, 2010

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010) - 2/5 stars

Release: 2010
Director: Samuel Bayer
Writer: Wesley Strick and Eric Hesserer (screenplay), Wes Craven (original characters)
Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Lia D. Mortensen
Soundtrack: Steve Jablonsky, Charles Bernstein (themes)
Claim to fame: a remake of the beloved 1984 horror film by Wes Craven; the latest of Michael Bay's horror remakes (following "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th")
Rating: 2/5 stars


Most fans of the the original "Nightmare" were ready to write off this remake from the get-go: it's from a first time director, produced by Michael Bay, and Wes Craven wasn't even asked for his blessing, let alone given any creative involvement.

For my part, I tried to be cautiously optimistic. I love horror movies but haven't exactly been enjoying Platinum Dunes' string of remakes, particularly the "Friday the 13th" one, which was borderline unwatchable.


This is never a good sign

However, I feel like the concept of the "Nightmare" series is so strong - someone who can kill you in your dreams - that it easily lends itself to being remade or reconfigured over time. Why let the series remain dormant when there's so much potential there?


The remake ended up disappointing me, but I can't say there aren't things to like about it. I appreciated that the movie made an attempt, even if it was half-hearted, to use a movie monster as a metaphor for adolescents trying to recover from the trauma of being sexually abused as children.


But even that begs the question: should you really use such dark and serious subject matter in what is, essentially, a low-budget slasher flick designed to make a lot of money its opening weekend and then fade away forever?

Probably not. Because they bungled the ending - the crucial scene where the two remaining survivors realize that they were indeed the victims of molestation at the hands of Fred Krueger - the whole movie just felt exploitative.


I liked the fact that the guys in the cast were not your usual cadre of jocks, stoners, or "bros just trying to get laid," who you root for the killer to pick off. The male actors, particularly Kyle Gallner and Thomas Dekker, were portrayed as masculine yet vulnerable, and were allowed to cry and be scared for their lives.

The line that you've probably heard in the trailer ("Why are you screaming? I haven't even cut you yet") is actually said to Dekker. That may sound slight, but I find it extremely refreshing when a studio horror movie manages to subvert genre norms and portray the male characters as being more than just tough guys with constant hard-ons.



Kyle Gallner, in particular, was fun to watch. He has ridiculously pale skin and this constant poe-faced expression on his face, like he's watching his entire family butchered before his very eyes *forever*. Either that or he had some bad Mexican food.


"My whole life is a dark room..."



The Joy Division t-shirt he wears in a few scenes was a nice touch as well. In real life, Gallner is probably just another arrogant Hollywood prettyboy but in this movie he managed to convince me he was a sensitive and tortured soul. Good job.


"Is it okay if I cry by your locker?"

Thomas Dekker I'd seen before in the short-lived but not half-bad "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" on Fox. He gave a decent performance on the show but he was still probably the wussiest and most emo John Connor of all time (who ever thought we'd miss Edward Furlong?).

In "Nightmare," his part is fairly underwritten - is he an outcast like Gallner or a prep or what? Does he listen to Bright Eyes? - but I suppose he makes the most of it.


"Hey Kendra, did you like that mix CD I made you? I gotta know!"

The opening scene has him and Gallner sitting at a table at an all-night diner with another kid (who we never see again) - it's after midnight, they're dressed in all black, and they all look very brooding and intense…so my guess is that they were either in the midst of a marathon Dungeons & Dragons session (that's what the black t-shirt set does at the diners near my house) or they're closeted gay lovers. Unfortunately, the movie never explores that angle.


Dekker seems to be wearing eyeliner during the entire film, even during a funeral scene, but I've been told that it's just his long eyelashes.


See: eyeliner at a funeral! I am telling you.

Only the gothest of the goth do that.

The jury is still out on that one, but I had to laugh at the scene where he gets thrown in a prison cell with a rough-looking older dude.


Whatever you do, Thomas...


don't drop the soap!

Clearly my mind was wandering during this remake. On to what you actually want to hear about: this movie's interpretation of Freddy Krueger. Jackie Earl Haley was great as Freddy but the character was not written consistently. During the first half of the movie, he is creepy and menacing, and his dialogue is sinister. He was pretty much what I was hoping to see from Haley.


Then during the finale, he turns into the old-wise cracking Freddy from the sequels with some sexual oneliners that felt in poor taste ("How's that for a wet dream?!" etc.). It doesn't help that, unlike in the original, Freddy doesn't even have any SCENES. Whenever he shows up in the film, it's always for short instances or jump scares. He doesn't get to inhabit the movie the way Robert Englund did.


I get that they were trying to make Freddie look more like an actual

burn victim, but all it does is make him seem strangely cat-like

I didn't feel like the flashbacks of Freddy's origin were consistent with his personality in the rest of the film. In these idyllic visions of the past, he's a nice guy who gets along well with children. We are later told that he, in fact, led the kids to a cave under the school where he abused them.


When Freddy shows up in the Elm Street teens' dreams, he's a deranged pervert that can't wait to

kill everybody and have his way with Nancy. I can see where this incarnation of Freddy would be angry enough to want to murder the kids, since their folks burned him alive, but I don't think he would have any sexual interest in a post-puberty Nancy if he was actually a child molester.


Again, to most people these are "nitpicks" but my notion is always, if you're going to tackle a serious subject like a pedophiliac killer - even in a horror movie - then be true to it. Or, at the very least, put some thought into it/do your research. A movie can be depressing at times and still entertain.

The "Nightmare" brand name is going to get butts in theater seats no matter what, so why not be ambitious with the material instead of settling for a lazy string of jump-scares to fill your 90 minute running time? On that note, if I ever make a horror movie you can better believe there won't be any jump scares.


As latter-sequel Freddie would say, "Don't dream and drive!"

Really, all the flashbacks did were make me think back to "Little Children" and how that was a much better movie. Poor Jackie Earl Haley…I really hope he doesn't have to play a child molester again for the rest of his career. He seems like a super nice guy in real life and in "Nightmare" he's definitely better than the material he's given.


Rooney Mara is TERRIBLE as Nancy. According to IMDB, she was born in New York but her voice sounds like she's speaking in a Canadian accent, with marbles in her mouth. It's like she's auditioning for a mumblecore movie.

She has nothing on Heather Langenkamp's plucky protagonist from the first film. The filmmakers try to play this Nancy as an angsty oddball who paints in her room during all hours of the night and doesn't fit in at school, but Mara doesn't feel authentic in the role.


Pictured: Rooney Mara is forced to endure her own performance

It goes without saying that the special effects don't hold up nearly as well as the original. Most of the effects are CGI and look cheap. Apparently the computer technology for a "creepy face morphing through a wall" hasn't evolved at all since Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners" back in 1998, and I swear that the holographic illusion poster that was in theaters for that flick was more impressive than what I saw in this "Nightmare."


The screenwriters seemed to snatch the most iconic moments from the original "Nightmare" at random. The scene where Freddy's hand emerges from the water as Nancy takes a bath is there, arbitrarily, for a split second. Basically just so they could put it in the trailer.


I caught a weekday showing of the film last night so I only spent $5. I don't regret the purchase but I did walk out of the movie feeling like it was not all I had hoped it would have been. There was potential in the script. But the kids in the movie are given terrible dialogue and don't seem to have actual relationships.

Their conversations are glib exchanges that do nothing to flesh out the characters as people, or convey how they feel about each other or what's happening to them. At one point, Kyle Gallner and the actress playing Nancy are reduced to a "What's your favorite color?" conversation. These kids literally have NOTHING to talk about. It's a shame.


A scene from the trailer...that's not in the final movie

Look, I'm not asking for "Mysterious Skin" with Freddy Krueger inserted in, I just want a little bit of character development and a serious contemplation of the after-affects of child abuse. I know it's "just" a horror movie, but the concept of "Nightmare" begs for it - and considering that this depth is what I would try to put in the script myself if I were writing it, I don't think it's asking for too much.

Instead of making a sad film, they cast sad-looking actors and called it a day. Director Samuel Bayer's previous credits include Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music videos, which I suppose makes sense as here he shows he understands the look of teen angst but nothing about what's actually behind it. Another rewrite with some polish could have made this a darker, more genuine movie instead of just a late-April stinker.


You could seriously make another movie from all the clips in the trailer
that aren't in the actual movie...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) - 5/5 stars

Release: 1984
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakley, Jsu Garcia, Charles Fleischer, Joseph Whipp, Lin Shaye, Joe Unger, Mimi Craven, Jack Shea, Ed Call
Soundtrack: Charles Bernstein
Claim to fame: the movie that made put Wes Craven on the map and introduced Freddy Krueger (and Johnny Depp!) to the world
Rating: 5/5 stars

Before we dive headfirst into a review "A Nightmare on Elm Street," let me preface things by saying: Wes Craven was an English and Philosophy professor before getting into the film business. There have been times in his career when he has seemed to have his finger directly on the pulse of whatever issue is plaguing America's subconscious.

The man knows how to scare his audience. What he does not know, however, is how to write dialogue for teenagers.


It's real kids - with real problems!

If the uninitiated boot up "A Nightmare on Elm Street" for the first time, they might be struck by the silliness of lines that include "Hey, up yours with a twirling lawn mower!" and "Screw your [hall] pass!"

They might also find the acting of lead Helen Langenkamp to be a bit on the amateurish side. As such, these folks might write off the movie entirely as a dated mess from the 80's. And that would be a shame.


Oh Heather, but we love your hair

Because I'm here to argue that "Nightmare" is one of the most imaginative and finely crafted horror movies of the past 30 years. It's one of those movies I wish I could view again for the first time, just to experience the awe and terror of some of its most memorable scenes: most particularly the sequence where Freddy Krueger first emerges from the darkness of an alleyway to taunt Tina.



The lighting and shot composition in this film are impeccable: everything is framed and lit perfectly to evoke the sinking dread of a dream you can't wake up from, and the vast power of someone who could actually manipulate your dream space. Wes Craven was really at the peak of his considerable talents with "Nightmare."


Screenshots can't really do this scene justice; you have to watch

the movie to see just how wet and atmospheric this corridor is


Wes Craven's choice of camera angles and shot composition is just brilliant

Although his impact has been lessened over the years, thanks to being printed on t-shirts and watered down by oneliner-spouting sequels, watch "A Nightmare on Elm Street" again and you'll realize just how scary Freddy Krueger is. He is a sick, sick bastard.

There are moments in this movie, blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments, that are truly deranged. Freddy peels off his face, slices off his fingers, and cuts his own body open just to freak out the teenagers on Elm Street (his body is filled with green pus and maggots, in case you're wondering).


Oh that Freddy Kreuger, he'll do anything for a laugh

How about the scene where Freddy Krueger sticks his face through a small window in the door of Nancy's house, literally *wearing* the skin Tina's face and talking in her voice, before casually ripping it off and taunting Nancy as Freddy again? Freddy declares "I'm your boyfriend now" and then licks Nancy's face - through the bottom receiver of a telephone.


Freddy takes crank calls to a whole new level

Combine that with the fact that Craven wisely filmed Freddy almost exclusively in shadows - we never get a full glimpse of his face and makeup - and you start to realize just why audiences were scared shitless by Robert Englund back in 1984. Before he joined the ranks of Pinhead and Chucky as "slasher movie monsters kids wish they could hang out with," Freddy was truly the stuff of nightmares.


Freddy under the covers: another blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment

that I just love

What's so great great is, cornball dialogue aside, the kids in this movie are likable. It's not like "Friday the 13th" where the audience is salaciously encouraged to root for the demise of a bunch of unlikeable jocks and sluts. Nancy isn't just the "good girl" - she's a good person. She tries to be there for her friends and she manages to be more mature than both her parents; her mother is a full-bore alcoholic while her father is consumed by his job as a police officer.

The movie is not a portrait of what happens when a demonic monster invades picture-perfect suburbia. Even before Freddy rears his flame-broiled head, the cracks are showing. In "Nightmare," not only are teenagers forced to suffer for the sins of their parents, but parental units are completely ineffectual. The scene where Nancy's mother slaps her daughter across the face still shocks me every time it happens.


There's an interesting subtext of the movie where Nancy and adults around her perceive her to be aging faster due to the stress of Freddy's return. At one point Nancy looks in a mirror and remarks, "I look 20 years-old." I think this is more than just a canny nod to the fact that Hollywood frequent casts 20-somethings as 15 year-olds. Due to her parents' refusal to atone for the actions of their past and the fact that they themselves escape from reality through alcohol or work, Nancy is forced to grow up a hell of a lot faster than normal.

During one of her more tense nightmares, Nancy returns from the dream world with Freddy's fedora - the first sign that she might actually be able to harm the murderer - and a newly grayed lock of hair on her head. She takes something from Freddy, but he's taken something from her.


Nancy also happens ludicrously brave. She devises her own plan to lure Freddy out of her dreams and into the real world so he can be rendered mortal and defeated. She counts on her lunkheaded boyfriend, played by Johnny Depp, to help her out but he doesn't take her serious enough. Take note, this is probably the one time in his career when Johnny Depp could be considered a total dork.

"Glen, you bastard…I just asked you to do one thing, to stay awake and watch me and to wake me up if it looked like I was having a bad dream, and what did you do, you shit? You fell asleep."


In the 80's, you really could buy a shirt "half off"

Nancy doesn't wait to die; she lays traps and antipersonnel weapons (seriously) around her house to stop Freddy in his tracks. And it almost works too, until we get to the studio-dictated twist ending where Freddy lives and Nancy is trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of torment ("Hey! Your friends and family are alive and well, but only so Freddy can keep killing them over and over again!").

Although this creative infringement caused Craven to bolt from the sequel, I have to admit I don't mind it for the simple fact that it's opening notes of false happiness seem to parody the entire decade of the 80's itself.


"Oh, honey, doesn't it just feel great to wake up to a misty morning,

dressed like a J Crew ad, and ready to play tennis?"

Wes Craven handpicked Heather Langenkamp to be in the film precisely because she seemed real and down to earth. Picking someone "non-Hollywood," as Craven put it, measured that Nancy would feel like a genuine teenager. It also meant that her acting abilities might not be as shrewdly rehearsed as kids who grew up in the business. There are those who might chortle at some of her line deliveries.


But as Wes said himself in 1994's "New Nightmare," Nancy may have been written as a resourceful character but it is Langenkamp who gave her her strength. And to her credit, Langenkamp has always been proud of her role as the heroine of "Nightmare" series, even going so far as to help make a documentary chronicling its entire history (the forthcoming "Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy).


And I haven't even mentioned the fantastic score by Charles Bernstein, one of those perfect 80's horror soundtracks, that combines a propulsive electronic beat with a haunting, sing-song melody on synthesizer notes that seem to melt as you're listening to them.

Pay attention to the masterful way that Bernstein incorporates the "1, 2, Freddy's coming for you" children's song into his score and how the music manages to be both fun and scary, just like the movie itself. Bernstein's soundtrack really adds a whole other level of enjoyment to "Nightmare."


The idea of a phantom able to kill you in your dreams is absolutely genius, and Wes Craven was able to capitalize on it with a smart script. Notice the scene where Nancy enters the safety of her house, and the frantic music suddenly stops. Nancy runs upstairs - the audience thinks she's headed for safety - and suddenly her feet sink into the steps and a rumbly synth note kicks in, reminding us that as long as you're asleep you're never safe from Freddy.


This is a master class in horror filmmaking, one of the few American movies that is as colorful and delightfully macabre as a Dario Argento flick. All of the special effects, which are practical, hand-made, and non-computer enhanced, still hold up terrifically after over 30 years. That's more than you can say for most movies with CGI from just 3 or 4 years ago.


Sorry, Glen's mom...


that's your son's blood you're watching funnel to the ceiling.

If any of "Nightmare's" power has waned in the intervening years, it's only because of the mass merchandising of the franchise (which was out of Craven's hands) and the resulting familiarization of Freddy Krueger.

But just pop the original "Nightmare" back in and you'll soon be reminded of its surreal power. Perhaps it'll be during that opening scene, when Tina turns her head to see a sheep bleating in front of her while a man laughs menacingly from somewhere unseen, and she realizes that her world is about to be turned upside down...


God, I love this movie

Friday, April 30, 2010

DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM (2009) - 3/5 stars

Release: 2009
Director: Patrick Alessandrin
Writer: Luc Besson
Cast: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Daniel Duval, Elodie Yung, Philippe Torreton, MC Jean Gab'1, James Deano, Laouni Mouhid, Fabrice Feltzinger, Pierre-Marie Mosconi
Soundtrack: various artists including Da Octopuss
Claim to fame: the long-awaited sequel to Luc Besson and Pierre Morel's 2004 international breakout hit "District B13"
Rating: 3/5 stars

Sure, sure, "District 9" was the critical darling of the sci-fi/genre community last year, but those who crave an injection of action into their veins knew all along that "District 13" was the cinematic destination for a kneecap-to-the-face adrenaline rush.

When "District B13" was released in 2004, it followed on the string of stylish action flicks like "Ong Bak" that combined wince-inducing stunts with a new athletic style known as parkour, a form of modern acrobatics that turns urban areas into obstacle courses.

The movie, directed by Pierre Morel and produced by Luc Besson, was short on intellect but hit the sweet spot for DVD importers craving their next action fix. And it proved that, even if he was never going to reach the artistic heights of "Leon" again, at least Besson was able to deliver slick Euro action vehicles every now and then.


As Jackie Chan would say: no fear. No stuntmen. No equal.

A lot has happened since 2004. Nearly every movie with a chase sequence has tried to incorporate some elements of parkour - even 2008's abysmal "Incredible Hulk" from fellow Besson protege Lous Letterier, which "B13" star Cyril Raffaelli contributed to. Cyril also played an evil henchman with Nightcrawler-esque agility in the tepid "Live Free and Die Hard" in 2007.

Over in Thailand, Tony Jaa managed to top the gravity-defying insanity of "Ong Bak" with not one but two amazing martial arts flicks ("The Protector," "Ong Bak 2"). It's safe to say that this particular brand of action filmmaking that was once so cutting edge has now reached Hollywood saturation.

So, as much as fans have been craving a sequel, you had to wonder: was there really a way for Besson to top himself and stay relevant with a "District 13" part 2? Lead actors Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle are a dynamic duo, no doubt, but they're no Tango & Cash; a sequel couldn't be sustained by their buddy chemistry alone. Bigger stunts, more elaborate action, a compelling storyline, and a kinetic visual style…those are the kinds of things viewers expected.

Now would be a good time for a snappy oneliner, guys

Unfortunately, Luc Besson's idea of crafting a worthy sequel here seems to be to take the same formula as the original and add a whole heaping load of CGI. Cue the collective groan from action fans everywhere.

Former director Pierre Morel is off to greener pastures - he directed the surprisingly good "Taken" and the surefire guilty pleasure "From Paris With Love," and is looking at doing a cinematic adaptation of "Dune." In his stead we have French filmmaker Patrick Alessandrin, a man I know next to nothing about but who apparently has some experience in directing French comedies. "Ultimatum" is his first film in 6 years. Are you worried yet?

I'll grant "Ultimatum" this: it looks and sounds gorgeous. The squalid beauty of a near-future Paris ghetto is brought to life by a stunning blu-ray transfer. The soundtrack features electronic/dubstep (I say that but I'm still not 100% sure what dubstep sounds like) by a French artist known as Da Octupuss, among others. It's music with a relentless, dirty groove that perfectly suits imagery of muscular dudes leaping from building to building while being chased by SWAT teams.

Jimmy Johns really takes it over the top with their new delivery service

Where this film goes astray is its screenplay and over-reliance on computer wizardry. The movie looks like it cost $100 million to make, but I'm sure it cost a fraction of that. Tere are times when it feels like Luc Besson's sole intent with "Ultimatum" was to prove that France could produce a movie as big, dumb, and loud as any Michael Bay blockbuster. But to what end? It's hyper-edited, digitally-enhanced sound and fury…signifying nothing.

The first "D13" opened with a parkour sequence that was so exciting and well-choreographed, it guaranteed that no matter what happened the rest of the movie, the filmmakers had your attention. With "Ultimatum," it takes literally 26 minutes for the plot to even kick in. Before that we have a vaguely creepy sequence where Raffealli dresses in drag to infiltrate a drug dealer's club. Let me put it this way: he's a bit too convincing. In fact, with a wig on he looks exactly like a muscular woman - and there are a few too many close-ups of his asscrack.

Cyril Raffaelli knows you're thinking about his ass

Of course, any talk about "plot" would be inconsequential as long as the action sequences held up. But they're either too cute for their own good or so far-fetched it's like they were cooked up by a computer program. This time around, Raffealli handles all the martial arts sequences while David Belle goes strictly parkour. One of my favorite moments was when our heroes are surrounded on both sides by a bunch of bad guys and Raffealli says something like, "I'll take care of these guys. You go do your Spider-Man routine." THAT'S what "Ultimatum" should have been about.

But again, it lets us down. I was hoping for Cyril's fight scenes to be up close and brutal, but too often he's using props - including a Van Gogh painting and a ladder - in choreography that seemed ripped right out of Jackie Chan's work from the 80's. Been there, done that. And David Belle's urban gymnastics no longer seem as impressive since everything looks so green-screened. By the time you got to the scene where Cyril and Belle drive a car through the hallways of a police station, you feel like "Ultimatum" is a Playstation 3 game where you don't even have to press any buttons.

Press X to Win

And I'm not even talking about the ridiculous story. You don't have to be Glenn Bleck to find the holes in this wacky far-Left fantasy that has a corrupt French military staging a fake cop killing so the President will agree to nuke District 13 and rebuild it as a suburban neighborhood for the middle class. As "Ultimatum" begins, the District has been drawn along 5 racial lines, including extremist Muslims, African warlords, the Chinese Triads, and Nazi skinheads. GUESS what brings all those folks together?

Yup, everybody puts aside their differences and teams together to try and stop the President from nuking the 5 tallest high-rises in the District and turning it into a bunch of condos. By the time you see the tall, lanky dude with "SS" and swastika tattoos all over his face raise his hand and join forces with a bunch of other ethnicities, well, if your eyes haven't rolled into the back of your head then you're not paying attention.

French skinheads everywhere wonder: can't we all just get along?

Again, if the action was up to par then things like this probably wouldn't matter, but "Ultimatum" just doesn't deliver the way its predecessor did. THAT SAID...wait for it, wait for it...I have to give it 3 stars simply because it looks and sounds astounding, and there was enough crazy fighting and stunts to keep me entertained for its relatively short runtime. And I can even appreciate the audaciousness of using blatant ethnic stereotypes as a means to promote racial harmony.

I'm also a huge fan of Cyril Raffaelli (as long as he's not wearing drag) ever since I saw him very nearly kick Jet Li's ass in 2001's "Kiss of the Dragon." I hope he stars in more movies where his name receives top billing - he's certainly earned it at this point. What can I say? Sometimes I'm loyal to a fault.

"Take two elbows to the face and call your doctor in the morning!"
How's that for a oneliner?