Jun 22, 2017

Teen Movie Thursday: Two Remakes

Footloose [12] [2011]
Dir: Craig Brewer
Remakes, one of several crutches that Hollywood is currently propping itself up on. It seems as though any film with a slightly recognisable name can now be reconfigured for a modern audience and let's just say that the resulting films haven't always been noted for being better than those they're inspired by. Footloose is an interesting choice for dusting off. In some ways it makes perfect sense. The High School Musical and Step Up films showed that a young audience has an appetite for seeing dance on the big screen and both music and dance have moved on significantly enough since 1984 that the film's big moments could avoid repeating those of the earlier version. On the other hand, does the story make sense in a modern context?

To its credit, the film works hard to lend some credibility to the idea that in 2011 there would be an American town that outlaws public dancing. The car accident that closes the film's exuberant opening credits is a shocking moment and it's not that much of a stretch to see a town whose lawmakers are especially conservative react to it with legislation that is both draconian and missing the mark in terms of what was actually to blame for that accident. You make the choice to go with it or not, and if you can, this version of Footloose has its rewards.

The basic story still sees rebellious teen Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) coming to town and butting heads with local preacher Rev. Moore (Dennis Quaid) over both the law against dancing and the fact that Moore's daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) is showing a lot of interest in this boy from out of town. The characters are rather basically sketched; a lot of Hicksville stereotypes, including Miles Teller in Chris Penn's role as Ren's friend who does not dance and Patrick John Flueger as a woefully broad asshole boyfriend that we all know Ariel will leave for Ren. There's also a thin role for Andie MacDowell as Quaid's wife. Even if you've not seen the original you know where this is going: Ren will get the girl and get the town dancing, it's really about execution and on that front there's good news and bad.

There is a gaping hole at the centre of this version of Footloose. Kevin Bacon was nobody's idea of a great dancer, but he is a great actor and more than that, simply by dint of his unique look, he's an interesting and memorable presence. Kenny Wormald is a very, very good dancer. How good? He used to be a backing dancer for Justin Timberlake, he's a pretty great dancer. Unfortunately he looks like he rolled off the production line in a factory where Hollywood makes cute guys you can't tell apart. His acting doesn't help. It's not that he's bad, he's just clearly not been cast as an actor first and his work is flat and bland. This really bites when Ren goes up against the town council. Again, when he should be fired up and getting the crowd, if not the council, behind him, Wormald just doesn't have the presence to pull it off.

I can't help but feel that Miles Teller, who is able to carry himself on screen with an arrogance that would work for the way Ren initially looks at this hick town he's ended up in, and who is a proper actor, would have made for a better lead. He's clearly not the dancer Wormald is, but he acquits himself well enough in the last number that it seems likely he could have picked up those skills. As it is, Teller is in appealing mode here and he has fun, making an appropriate analogue for Chris Penn. As with Wormald, you suspect that Dancing With The Stars pro (and now judge) Julianne Hough was cast for her dance background and small town Barbie look rather than strictly for her acting, but she does more than Wormald can with a thinner part. When there's finally a proper dramatic note for her to play, Hough is pretty good as Ariel confronts her Father, in his church, after she's been assaulted by her now ex boyfriend. Dennis Quaid is one of the better things here on an acting level. He's got a sliminess to go along with his charm that suits this part well. You can believe him as a preacher and as convincing speaker on the town council. He's one of the things that makes the anti dancing law feel somewhat plausible, because you can see how he could talk people round to his rationale for it. The character is on the two dimensional side, but Quaid is always worth watching.

The dancing, more than any of the actors, is the star of the film and Craig Brewer gives those moments prominence and makes each feel a little bit different. There's hip hop dancing in an early scene where Ren and Ariel first spot each other, line dancing at a club and Ren has a contemporary number when he's trying to get out his frustrations. It's all well executed, impressively choreographed and entertaining. Wormald and Hough both communicate as much character through their dance numbers as they do through any dialogue, more in Wormald's case.

Footloose is a pretty middle of the road film, slightly less interesting than the original as a piece of drama but probably better if you're coming to it purely for the dancing and the music. It can stand relatively well alongside the 1984 film, but I'm not sure its generation will end up holding it in quite the nostalgic glow that the original has around it.

Prom Night [15] [2008]
Dir: Nelson McCormick
The slasher often seems seems to be seen as the laziest of subgenres. Get a bunch of attractive young people, put them in an isolating situation, add someone with a signature weapon (mask optional, but encouraged) and stretch as hard as you can until you reach 85-90 minutes. Job done. Perhaps lazier still is the slasher remake. The groundwork has been done for you, the situation already exists and, depending how faithful you are being, so have many characters and even specific sequences. Prom Night, as a remake in name only, doesn't rely on its source film so much, but make no mistake, it is still a profoundly and painfully lazy enterprise.

The film opens with a flashback to three years ago when a teacher (Jonathan Scheach) with an obsession with one of his students (Donna, played by Brittany Snow) murdered her entire family. The rest of the movie takes place on Prom Night, during which Donna's teacher escapes the asylum he's been confined to and plans to kidnap her from her Prom. I'd have warned you of spoilers at the top of that paragraph but for two things, first, I'm not recommending this piece of shit and second, the blurb on the blu ray box also tells you the entire story, if they don't care why should I?

It's not necessarily the worst idea for a slasher to tell us who the killer is upfront. Genre classics like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street don't trade on mystery, but they have killers who are terrifying and characters around them who are interesting, to say nothing of masterful, visionary filmmakers behind the cameras. Prom Night 2008 has a collection of pretty young ciphers and Nelson McCormick, a TV director making an almost determinedly anonymous feature d├ębut. 

The screenplay, by J.S. Cardone, whose own first directorial feature The Slayer featured on the Video Nasties list back in the 80s, is terrible in every respect. The characters barely deserve that designation. Often in teen movies characters have to make do with traits (the Jock, the Bitch, the Brain etc) rather than full personalities. Cardone doesn't even grant his characters that. Brittany Snow's Donna is blonde. Her friends Claire (Jessica Stroup) and Lisa (Dana Davis) are brunette and African American respectively. Lisa's eye for men (“one of 'em was knida cute” she says when a group of men in their 30s or 40s hits on them) is the only thing I can remember as defining trait for any of them. Donna is perhaps especially bland, and she's supposed to be our Final Girl. The supporting cast; the girls' boyfriends, Idris Elba as Detective Exposition and Jonathan Scheach as the murderous teacher, are no further developed. 

Cardone has one early idea that, while not overly original, might enliven proceedings. Donna is supposed to be traumatised by her experiences (we'll get to that) and is on anxiety medication. Just before she goes off to her Prom we discover that she has been off her meds for a week. This could easily have been exploited to good effect: an anxiety ridden Donna, having actually seen her teacher, trying to convince her friends – who know her history – that he's really there and it's not the lack of pills talking. Cardone and McCormick could also have used this to create a sense of uncertainty in the audience, but this information is forgotten and swept under the carpet the second it's revealed.

As director, Nelson McCormick seems to go page by page through The Complete Hack's Guide To Making Your First Horror Movie. There are several jump scares in mirrors, two dream sequences, a series of repetitive, boringly shot murders and several iterations of the pulling back the shower curtain scare. This film could have been made by AI if you'd fed it the most repeated moments from the last 30 years of slasher movies.

The acting is bad, though perhaps not entirely the fault of the cast. Brittany Snow could have suggested her character's heightened anxiety, making something of the dropped plot point about Donna's meds, even if Cardone and McCormick forgot about it. Unfortunately this eludes her, as does any semblance of personality or much in the way of expression. Idris Elba is clearly paying his rent here. He contributes a solid accent and says his dialogue out loud. The rest of the cast don't have to do accents, but manage the saying things out loud part of the equation. 

There wasn't much here for anyone to work with in order to turn in a good performance, but surely Jonathan Scheach should at least be able to seem creepy. He doesn't. We barely see him interact with Brittany Snow. His obsession isn't a strong thread at all. We should be feeling him in every shot, but instead he spends most of the film confined to the upstairs of the hotel where Prom Night is happening, pointlessly knocking supporting players off, which makes zero sense if we're to believe his objectives and that he has a plan to kidnap Donna.

Prom Night 2008 is an excruciatingly dull film. It pales next to its much more inventive source (and even more so next to the hugely fun, initially unrelated, sequel Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2). It's poorly directed and written, and acted by a near comatose cast. The audience will be in the same state by the end of this cinematic anaesthetic. 

Apr 8, 2017

The Month in Movies: March 2017

Film(s) of the Month
The Story of Sin / The Eyes of my Mother / Dial M For Murder
The last film I saw this month was easily the best, but of course it was, it was Hitchcock. Dial M For Murder is a brilliantly written film; intricate and thrilling, with both script and direction tipping their hand JUST enough to keep us on the edge of our seats while never giving away enough that we can see all of the twists coming. The month's other highlights are both beautifully composed films. I've fallen in love with Walerian Borowczyk's work since Arrow Academy started putting out new blu ray editions. The Story of Sin is perhaps not my favourite, but it's a stunningly photographed film that, like much of its director's work, elevates exploitation cinema to something closer to fine art. While The Story of Sin has images packed with gorgeous detail, The Eyes of my Mother takes a different approach; its frames are stark and spare, but no less dazzling to look at. Nicolas Pesce makes the most disturbing images in his film some of the most beautiful through his striking formal compositions. It can initially be alienating, especially taken alongside the detached performances, but the effect is cumulative and I found the film sunk its hooks ever deeper into me as it went on.

Worst of the Month
The New Guy / Fateful Findings
Two different kinds of terrible movie this month: The New Guy is slapdash effort from the height of the early 2000's teen movie boom. It's a charmless, witless effort, as poorly acted and shot as it is written. Then there's Fateful Findings. Neil Breen's third film is very much in the Ed Wood mould. Breen does everything; writing, directing, acting, editing and much more besides. Incoherent and laughably abysmal as it is, this is the film of someone who aspires to something. Breen clearly believes in his vague message about government corruption and in the 'romantic' 'thriller' through which he's delivering it. His incompetence as a filmmaker makes this an interesting film, even if it is truly terrible. There's something to be admired in that. It's still shit though.

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya: Get Out / Shahab Hosseini: The Salesman
Best Actress: Taraneh Alidoosti: The Salesman / Pauline Etienne: The Nun
Best Supporting Performance: AnnaLynne McCord: Trash Fire
Better Than the Film: Anya Taylor-Joy: Morgan / Juno Temple: Safelight
Best Director: Walerian Borowczyk: The Story of Sin / Alfred Hitchcock: Dial M For Murder
One to Watch: Jordan Peele / Daniel Kaluuya: Director/Actor: Get Out
Best Visuals: The Story of Sin / The Eyes of My Mother
Biggest Surprise: Kristen Stewart's performance in Personal Shopper (not so keen on the film as a whole)
Biggest Disappointment: Police Story: Lockdown / Certain Women
I'm Pretty Sure No One Else Has Seen This: The ABCs of Love and Sex
Movie I Finally Got to See: Dial M For Murder
Coolest Title: The Bloodstained Butterfly

Apr 1, 2017

Power Rangers [12A]

Dir: Dean Israelite
I was just a bit too old for Power Rangers. I remember it coming on UK TV in the mid 90's, when I was 13 or 14, and feeling that I had aged out of the audience by a few years. That said, I ended up watching quite a lot of the early series' because my brother, 4 years younger, was a huge fan of the show (and I, I confess, was quite a fan of Amy Jo Johnson's Kimberly). I didn't have much investment when approaching this reboot, but as a fan of teen movies and of martial arts films, I was hoping for something I could enjoy, even if at the purely silly and superficial level on which the show functioned. It's weird to feel disappointed by a film you went in with no real expectations for.

The film retains the basic setup of the show. Five teenagers from Angel Grove, California, discover coins that give them access to an ancient power. At a command centre Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader) inform these new Power Rangers – Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G) – that they are now tasked with protecting the universe from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), who has just awakened after 65 million years and now seek the Zeo Crystal, with which she can destroy all life on Earth.

There are a couple of new ideas introduced to the backstory here. The first – That Rita was a Power Ranger who went bad – has promise. This makes the conflict between Rita and Zordon more personal, or it should, but like much of the rest of the story here it's stated rather than explored. Another new idea is connected to how the Rangers morph. The handheld morphers are gone, replaced with some vague babble about only being able to morph when they are 'thinking only of each other'. It's this second idea that I feel encapsulates what's wrong with Power Rangers 2017.

There seems to be a feeling, especially in reboot culture, that audiences won't invest emotionally in a story unless it is dark and po-faced. Power Rangers sticks resolutely to this model for a good 80 percent of its needlessly lengthy running time. The rangers aren't friends as the film begins, instead they're all outcasts to a certain degree. Jason is a sports star who messed up his chances of playing in College with a stupid prank. Zack looks after his ailing Mother and cuts school a lot. Billy is an autistic genius with a tragic dead father backstory. Kimberly did something awful to a friend (it sounds like she shared some revenge porn, but this is a 12A, so the film never says that). Trini doesn't get on with her Mum and it's implied that might be because Trini is gay (there's a vague reference to 'girlfriend problems'). The film spends a lot of time on this teen angst bullshit, but it never does anything more than skim the surface of the issues it brings up. It puts a moody face on, but nothing more. If the film committed to these themes, if it used them, as it aspires to, to bring the Rangers closer, to make them knit together as a team and as friends, that would be something. Unfortunately it's just not well enough written or, for the most part, acted for that to work. What we get instead is a film whose storytelling is as downbeat and grey as most of its look. An hour in I wanted to yell at the screen, to grab the screenwriters and scream “have some fun, it's Power Rangers”.

The acting is as problematic as the writing when it comes to how the tone of Power Rangers fails. RJ Cyler runs away with the film, occasionally finding some levity as Billy and being the one person whose excitement at suddenly being a superhero seems real and investable. The other Rangers are stunningly dull. Writer John Gatins seems to have taken one personality type ('rebel') and handed it to both Trini and Zack. Neither Becky G nor Ludi Lin has much to do (indeed Trini isn't named until almost an hour in, so much of an afterthought is she), but they don't elevate the material either. As Jason and Kimberly, Dacre Montgomery and Naomi Scott have bigger parts, but their personalities are just as small. The film can't decide what to do with them either, at one point it seems to imply that Billy might have a crush on Kimberly, but neither this nor the equally briefly and randomly hinted at attraction between her and Jason comes to anything. There is little to no sense of them as a group, so a would be emotional end of act 2 beat, in which they all say they would die for each other (they've known each other a week) is rendered laughable.

The supporting roles are equally mixed. Bill Hader contributes an Alpha 5 you won't want to strangle, which is progress, but Bryan Cranston can't find anything to hold on to as Zordon. On the plus side there's Elizabeth Banks. Banks seems to be in the Power Rangers movie I might have actually enjoyed watching. She chomps ever increasing amounts of scenery with a glee that seems to grow scene by scene. It was nice to see someone having fun with what should be a fun concept.

Power Rangers is ugly in the way most blockbusters are ugly now. The film it looks most like is Transformers, like that series it takes something that was bright, bold and colourful and renders it mostly in shades of grey. This is most notable the first time we see the Rangers in full costume as a group. They get a Right Stuff shot, it should be the moment all our childhoods come flooding back, but the shot is so dark that you can barely see the differences in the colours of their costumes. This is also a problem with the Zords, which look like rejected models for Bay's next Transformers movie. The action is slightly more coherent than I expected, but it's disappointing not so see more martial arts before we get to the big CGI smackdowns of the Zord vs monster fights.

In its last 20 minutes, the film changes tone quite radically. It seems to remember which TV show it's adapting and decide that, it's time to cut loose a bit. In the daytime set fight scenes there's finally a bit of colour to the Rangers' look and there's finally a sense of teamwork and of the team enjoying discovering their powers, while recognising the stakes of what they have to do. It's the best part of the film, but it sits awkwardly with the preceding 90 minutes. The last fight and, to some degree, the earlier scenes of Elizabeth Banks having a grand old time as Rita, feel like they belong to another film; one that found the sweet spot between the corny show and original film and something that brings a little more credibility to this idea, updating it for a new time. If this tone is what the whole of the inevitable sequel ends up going for then I could imagine watching it. If it's more of the Sour Rangers stuff we get here, count me out.