Big Screen Review: Fright Night 3D

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The Pitch: Fright Night: The Next Generation.

The Review: If you’re about the same age as me, then many of your childhood movie memories are focused around the great movies of the Eighties, such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins and The Goonies, and other movies beginning with the letter G. It would also be around the age that you first became aware of horror movies; straddling somewhere between those classic family movies and the first flushes of horror was Fright Night, and while not a classic it’s fondly remembered by many who then graduated to more serious horror. But while it sank its teeth into the necks of some fondly remembered Eighties names, now the modern fondness for remakes has now also claimed another victim.

Comparisons to the original are inevitable, not least in terms of the cast, who have to compare to the likes of Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall. In truth, this remake hasn’t skimped in that area, and even the smaller family roles are filled out by familiar names such as Toni Collette and Imogen Poots. Christopher Mintz-Plasse also continues his run of geeky best friends / comedic foils, but the biggest name in the cast is undoubtedly Colin Farrell in the suspected vampire role. (I’m not a fan of spoilers, but frankly if you’re in any doubt whether Farrell turns out to be an actual vampire or not, then you’re probably watching the wrong film.) Farrell relishes the role, and successfully switches from a sleazy charm to a quiet menace effortlessly and fairly owns the bad guy role.

Just like the original, though, this isn’t an out and out horror; there’s not huge amounts of gore or massive scares, but director Craig Gillespie does do a good job of building up the tension at various points. Occasionally the characters make what appear to be massive leaps of logic or behave in slightly unbelievable ways, but that’s mainly due to the slightly knowing tone of the script, and maybe that’s not surprising given writer Marti Noxon’s background on TV, writing for the likes of Buffy and Angel. Consequently she’s not afraid to toss in the odd Twilight reference or other cultural meme, but she and Gillespie do give events plenty of forward momentum and there’s not many in the way of dull moments.

There’s one person I haven’t mentioned yet, though, and that’s the person taking the Roddy McDowall role. Previously, this was a TV host of a vampire show with a cowardly streak when it came to real vampires; as that simply wouldn’t work in this internet age, the role’s been reinvented as a TV magician with a penchant for the dark arts. Oddly cut out of much of the promotional material and not appearing until the half way mark, David Tennant turns up and promptly steals nearly every scene he’s in, his Cockney Criss Angel getting most of the best lines and being generally uncouth and unhelpful at all the right moments. This reinvention of Fright Night won’t go down as a classic, but it’s a lot of fun and should play well to multiplex crowds, whichever night they decide to get their frights on.

Why see it at the cinema: Director Gillespie makes good use of the space he’s got, and there’s plenty of big laughs when Tennant’s on screen and reasonable scares when Farrell’s around.

Why see it in 3D: If you’ve got any sense, don’t. The image is fairly dark for most of the movie, due to being mostly set at night, and there’s been no effort to compensate for this in the 3D image, so the fact you’ll be watching it wearing sunglasses just makes it worse. There’s the odd good 3D moment, but not enough to compensate for not being able to see anything. Stick to 2D on this one.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Arthur

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The Pitch: America gets more Brand awareness.

The Review: You wait ages for a Russell Brand film and then two come along at once. Or maybe you don’t; there’s as many people who run screaming at the sight of the scruffy English dandy as who enjoy his schtick, and this remake is an attempt to play on Brand’s particular qualities. He managed to successfully break out of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, getting his own spin-off and it was one that did its best to play to his strengths and his background, allowing him the role of the reforming addict who had a larger than life stage presence. Arthur feels like another attempt to do that, fitting the role to the perception of Brand’s character, but all that serves to do is to show that it’s as easy to get that right as it is to get it badly wrong.

Brand follows in the footsteps of Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach, a spoiled rich man with a kid’s outlook on life. The other thing that Arthur has is a drinking problem, although sometimes you feel Arthur’s drinking problem is nearer to that of Ted Striker than a real alcoholic, with Brand alternating between affecting the comedy slurring practiced by Dudley Moore in the original and sounding completely sober, often in consecutive scenes. His Arthur is a comedy drunk, except someone seems to have sucked out all the comedy from his performance, with the most risqué action being to snob a complete stranger at a restaurant. The loss of comedy, crucially, seems to stem from Brand attempting to channel Dudley Moore rather than putting his own stamp on the role, but he’s given precious little to work with and there’s a definite whiff of 100 studio executives in the editing room making sure that anything too unpalatable doesn’t make the cut.

While the comedy fares pretty poorly, some other elements do manage to rise above the material a little better. Most of those centre around either Helen Mirren, who’s far too good for this and isn’t afraid to prove it repeatedly, or Greta Gerwig. The movie is at its most effective either when Mirren is acting pithy or when Brand and Gerwig are casually flirting and throwing random thoughts into the conversation. There’s a whole host of other famous names involved, from Jennifer Garner in the thankless prospective wife role to Luis Guzman as the quiet chauffeur Bitterman, but none of them make any real impression either way.

The unfortunate exception to that is Nick Nolte, who plays the bride’s father and gets about three scenes. The first of these is meant to be mildly threatening but actually comes over as toe-curlingly embarrassing and almost kills the movie stone dead. It’s symptomatic of the wild shifts in tone which director Jason Winer seems ill-equipped to cope with. It doesn’t really work as a comedy, attempts at pathos fall flat and it’s only the partial romantic success and Helen Mirren that prevent this being a total write off. Sad to say, if you want to see one Russell Brand movie released this April, you should make it Hop, which at least allows Brand to be more Brand. Arthur is as embarrassing as a drunken relative at your school play, and a lot less amusing.

Why see it at the cinema: The audience I saw it with laughed once, so there’s not much to be gained there, but the Grand Central Terminal scenes do benefit from a larger viewing area.

The Score: 4/10

Review: Brighton Rock

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The Pitch: Greene’s Pinkie gets some colour in his cheeks.

The Review: One might be forgiven for thinking, given the alarming regularity with which old classics get remade these days, that there is a shortage of original ideas among film-makers these days. Of course, if approached correctly there’s no reason why a second interpretation or adaptation of a work can’t be as artistically valid as the original, but a second bite at the cherry does make you hope that those involved have something new to bring to the material. The level of challenge does go up significantly when tackling not only a highly regarded piece of fiction, but also one that has already received an adaptation which been favoured and loved for decades. So to take on a second adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is either very brave or quite foolish; as it turns out, it’s probably been a little of both.

The adaptation itself isn’t slavish; the setting has been updated from the Thirties setting of both the novel and original film to a Sixties setting, which allows the various confrontations to be played out against the prominent backdrop of the Mods and Rockers and their various battles. The characters, though, haven’t changed too much, the central story still being that of young gangster Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) and his increasing attempts to improve his own influence and to cover the tracks of his various misdemeanours. His main attempt to cover those tracks is to get close to Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a young waitress who unwittingly ends up with a crucial piece of evidence, and in Pinkie’s attempts to protect himself Rose ends up drawn both increasingly close to him and also deeper and deeper into his plans.

To a certain extent, the success of such an adaptation stands and falls on its casting, when such direct comparisons can be made to the original. This is where the first major problem presents itself, in that Sam Riley is no Richard Attenborough. Not only does Riley not have the youthfully innocent look that Attenborough had in the original, but also crucially fails to exude anything approaching the same air of menace. This is counterbalanced somewhat by the casting of Rose, and the up and coming Andrea Riseborough’s performance. Where Riley is one note and stuffy at times, Riseborough runs through a full range of emotions and manages to make her sympathetic and sycophantic character eminently believable. Elsewhere, it’s a very mixed bag; some of the big names such as John Hurt and Andy Serkis deliver their normal level and could do with more screen time, but Helen Mirren also feels oddly miscast and never quite captures the feeling being aimed for.

So, back to that question of what’s new. The Mods / Rockers setting is new, and indeed the look of the film is one of the best assets of Brighton Rock, the settings capturing the feel of the era, while allowing for variations of mood and making efficient use of both daylight and darkness. But thematically and conceptually, there’s not a great deal of fresh meat here; Rowan Joffe has contributed both script and direction and it’s by far the latter that’s his most useful contribution. The script has an effective, if slightly predictable, ending, but Greene’s original themes of Catholicism and morality are only paid lip service and get somewhat smothered, and the film has to work hard to convey even the simplest of the motivations as the plot develops. While there are some worthy moments, and Riseborough appears to be a star in the making, sadly this Brighton adaptation doesn’t rock as much as it should.

Why see it at the cinema: The Sixties setting is wonderfully evoked and some of the imagery is moodily effective. The most compelling reason by far, though, is Riseborough’s magnetic performance.

The Score: 6/10

Review: The Mechanic

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The Pitch: Jason Statham is [Random Job Title Generator #63].

The Review: You might not thank me for reminding you of the Expendables, but I’m going to do it anyway. One thing was immediately noticeable in terms of the cast – there was a massive array of talent from ten, twenty and thirty years ago, but the only person really working at the same level from the current era of movie stars was Jason Statham. After coming to prominence in Guy Ritchie movies, Statham has become the closest thing we have to an A-list action star in the 21st century. The Transporter and Crank movies appeal to particular audiences, happy to accept The Stath knowing his limits on the acting front but getting by on his natural rough charisma and undoubted ability to knock out solid action scenes time after time.

The franchise model for the older action star required one series, such as a Rocky or a Die Hard, to make your name with, then a series of forgettable but often enjoyable lesser movies where you can get your lead to play the same role with a different name. Arthur Bishop doesn’t quite hold a candle to Chev Chelios or Lee Christmas, but it’s strange enough in context that it’s all Arthur and his date from a bar have to talk about (once they’ve had a highly over-stylised sex scene just after meeting, of course). But it’s not random sex scenes or unusual names that get Statham’s fans turning out time after time, it’s the generally solid quality of the action scenes that keep people coming back. And I’m pleased to report that the action here, while not quite being at Crank levels of insanity or intensity, are at least better than the back end of the Transporter series.

But before that, of course, there’s the relative necessity of plot to navigate. Thankfully, to make things easier, this is a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson / Michael Winner collaboration, which was famed for its first quarter of an hour being entirely dialogue free. You might think that’s why it’s been selected as ideal remake material for The Stath, but that would be a little unfair, his gravelly stoicism not the stuff of awards but it’s still enough to make a sure foundation for the story to be built on. What this does have in the opening stretch instead is Donald Sutherland, popping up as one of the heads of the firm that keeps Bishop in business – when you see that the other head is Tony Goldwyn, a.k.a. smarmy bad guy from Ghost, there’s no prizes for guessing who’s good and who’s bad. Ben Foster takes the role filled by Jan-Michael Vincent in the original, here playing Sutherland’s son and the trainee mechanic who Bishop reluctantly takes under his wing.

This isn’t a film packed with staggering plot twists or intricate character drama, although it is well acted in comparison to its peers and it has the decency to throw us a variation on the ending of the original. But The Mechanic is like Statham himself; solid, undemanding, reliable and with enough satisfying moments to justify its presence. The majority of the action is in the last third and the set pieces are all well constructed. You’re going to struggle to remember too much about it a week after seeing it, but while you’re in front of it it does the job intended with as little fuss as possible. Director Simon West gave us Con Air over a decade ago, and nothing as memorable since – if he let himself loose a little more, there’s the potential for that level of fun next time around, but for now it’s just another day at the office for The Stath.

Why see it at the cinema: The action, the best and most prominent of which is in the last third of the movie, is exactly what popcorn and Saturday nights were designed for.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Let Me In

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The Pitch: Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

The Review: Hollywood does many things well, and one it seems to do extremely well is to make a complete Horlicks of remaking successful foreign films, either losing the essence of what made them so special in the first place or adding in element that don’t work in context. There’s a spate of high profile instances going through the production cycle at present, and it’s two of the Scandinavian movies that have won widespread acclaim in the last couple of years that are currently getting the most attention. The first out of the box is Cloverfield director Matt Reeves with his re-imagining of the Swedish classic, Let The Right One In.

First of all, re-imagining may be too strong a word for what Reeves has done. Claims that he’s returned to the source material prove unfounded and there is, in places, an almost slavish dedication to recapturing the look and feel of the predecessor, to the extent that you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that this is set in New Mexico, not Northern Europe. While Reeves has made a few attempts to distance himself from the original, at times this has the feel of a shot for shot remake in the style of Van Sant’s Psycho or Haneke’s English language Funny Games, and feels about as essential as either – in other words, not at all if you’ve any familiarity with the first film.

So to those areas where the differences come in, and this is still a story about a young boy who’s isolated and ends up living next door to someone who gradually reveals their secret, except now they’re called Owen and Abby instead of Oscar and Eli. There’s one change, in the modus operandi of Abby’s guardian, which leads to a stunning set piece seen from a fixed viewpoint at the back of a car that equals and, whisper it, possible even betters anything in the original. Additionally, we never see Owen’s mother clearly, which serves to reinforce his sense of isolation. But apart from that, other than the casting, any other changes actually work against the overall feel, including some ill-advised CGI which serves to take you out of the scene rather than further into it.

The casting, though, is about as impeccable as you could possibly hope for in such a situation. Chloe Moretz, while occasionally less androgynous in appearance than her Swedish counterpart, still nails the role of the creature years beyond her young appearance, while Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas round out an excellent central cast. Michael Giacchino’s score is also moodily effective and worth a mention. But other than that, this first film from the relaunched Hammer studios feels like the safest possible bet that they could have made. So let’s be clear – it’s a great film, but the original was outstanding, and is so recent that I bought it on Blu-ray as soon as it came out. Imagine having been given an orange flavoured, chocolate covered cake snack from a supermarket’s own range when you already own a packet of Jaffa Cakes – why would you not just eat the Jaffa Cakes?

Why see it at the cinema: The car set piece deserves a view on the big screen, and this is absolutely dripping in atmosphere. It’s also a real thrill to see the Hammer logo on the big screen, and long may it remain. But if you’ve encountered the original, then move along, for there’s nothing to see here.

The Score: 8/10

(Author’s note:  I was eating Jaffa Cakes at the time of writing.)

Review: The A Team

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The Pitch: A shadowy flank into the dangerous world of… oh, sorry, that’s the other one.

The Review: I grew up in the Eighties, mainly on a diet of cheesy American TV series. They were two a penny for a while, and I watched them all: Manimal, Street Hawk, Automan and Airwolf, most of them with cheerfully interchangeable plots and a tenuous grip on reality, ideal for a ten year old looking for excitement. The one I replayed most myself was my out and out favourite, Knight Rider (the other one of the pitch above, in case you missed the Eighties for any reas0n); the one played out most on the playgrounds with my friends and I, and probably on most other playgrounds, was The A Team, with every kid fighting over which one they wanted to be. I often got to be Face, partly as he was my favourite at the time (Dirk Benedict was also in Battlestar Galactica, making him extra cool, and they then referred to this in the opening titles! How exciting!), and partly because my friends and I had a well developed sense of irony at an early age, so making Face the ugly one was a no-brainer.

What I was really hoping for was that this modern reboot of the franchise would capture, above all, that sense of playground fun that made you want to be these guys, running around shooting but never fatally wounding. Crucial to that would be the casting of the central foursome and their ability to inhabit the same characters, and this is only a partial success. The most successful is Sharlto Copley, who has huge amounts of fun with Murdock, throwing in random accents and never standing still. Bradley Cooper is a pretty, and pretty reasonable, Face, pulling off the swagger but never quite having the smooth charm of the original. Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson is easy enough to watch, but doesn’t have the gruff charisma of Mr T. Most disappointing is Liam Neeson, who never manages the American accent that well and doesn’t have the cocky authority of George Peppard.

However, the group as a whole do have fun, and come across as a unit you’d like to spend time with. The movie’s at its winning best when the four are planning their latest crazy stunt and the interplay is firing; there’s maybe not quite enough of this and maybe a little too much introspection at times, especially in B.A.’s ill advised non-violence sub-plot. The original series was a pure pleasure on its own terms, and at times almost slide-rule linear in terms of its plotting; every good episode consisted of the “team enter a situation, team get in trouble, team use unconventional means to win the day” through-line, and you were never required to engage the brain cells. The movie tries to be a little more involved, but only a little – any twists are all well telegraphed, so you get the same effect as the original, but it doesn’t feel quite as well constructed.

What stops this from being a great film, rather than a just above average one, are the action sequences. The concepts are by and large good, it’s the execution, and Joe Carnahan’s direction, that renders them often unclear and just as often unenjoyable. Apart from the team camaraderie, this should have been the core of the movie, and that’s where the biggest let down comes – if it was an attempt to disguise the shoddy CGI, then it was a mistake and the action shouldn’t have been sacrificed as a result. I love it when a plan comes together, but this one sadly never quite does. If someone’s willing to stump up for a sequel, though, then there’s enough here to think that Plan B might be the one.

Why see it at the cinema: The unclear action sequences do fill the whole frame, so seeing them on the big screen does at least give you the best possible chance of working out what’s going on. There are also just about enough laughs to want to share them.

The Score: 6/10

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