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A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2010When I see the name Platinum Dunes attached to a horror remake, I hang my head in a wholly disheartened state.  While I did enjoy their remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its own merits, everything after that has been stuck in the mud sinking further and further into uninspired junk.  I’ve given them fair chances, but they have failed in such colossal ways.  The final nail in the coffin was this remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street.  A cluttered, drab, plodding mess is what this film turned out to be, and even not comparing it to Wes Craven’s original classic, it’s still a poorly executed film.

Five teenage friends living on one street all dream of a sinister man with a disfigured face, a frightening voice and a gardener’s glove with knives for fingers.  One by one, he terrorizes them within their dreams – where the rules are his and the only way out is to wake up.  But when one among them dies, they soon realize that what happens in their dreams happens for real and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake.  Buried in their past is a secret that has just begun to be revealed.  To save themselves, they must plunge into the mind of the most twisted nightmare of all: Freddy Krueger

Okay, remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street is not an outright terrible idea.  There are certainly ways to expand upon the original idea, enhance the effects, and execute it with a new, yet still effective style.  Surely, a sequel could just as easily do the same, but for whatever reason, despite the massive success that was Freddy vs. Jason and the fact that Robert Englund could easily reprise his iconic role, New Line Cinema chose to just remake the original.  However, no one involved in this film did anything to make this a film worth making.  I think it’s easier for a franchise to recover from a bad sequel than a bad remake.  With a bad sequel, you still have better moments in continuity and filmmaking efforts to build upon, and if the sequel is bad enough, like Highlander II bad, you can disassociate it from continuity.  A bad remake stops progress dead in its tracks because the beginning of this new continuity is not well received, fans don’t like the direction the property was rebooted into, and the general fan base doesn’t want to see more of it.  There’s next to nowhere to go, and that’s why you rarely see sequels to remakes.

Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent actor, and I have very much enjoyed him in a couple of roles.  There was a potential for him to deliver something impressive and unique here.  There are a few things he does that were new and original in terms of mannerisms.  However, by no fault of his own, neither the script nor director gave him anything worthwhile to sink his talent into.  Krueger is poorly developed as the filmmakers try to take him in a different direction, but the entire premise backfires in such a sloppy, brain dead way.  Trying to suggest that Krueger was wrongfully accused and unjustly murdered could work under more talented screenwriters and filmmakers, but it’s just handled stupidly and with no forethought.  However, the biggest issue, for me, was that Haley was too recognizable even under that very good make-up job.  When I saw this theatrically, I had just seen Haley regularly on the Fox television series Human Target, and so, his face was very familiar to me.  Even the voice he uses is essentially that of Rorschach from Watchmen with a slur.  It feels like a half thought out package, at best, which is an accurate blanket statement for this entire movie.

A problem arises with the performances by its young leads.  This film does quite a good job accurately portraying sleep deprivation with people being frayed, exhausted, drowsy, and essentially very drained of energy.  Unfortunately, that also creates a set of performances that are drab, lifeless, and generally disinteresting.  The thing is, in none of the previous Elm Street movies did I ever have a problem with the actors actually putting energy into their performances when they were meant to be sleep deprived.  For one, the make-up department did their jobs in weathering the young actors to look the part, much the same is done here, but secondly, energy and conviction are exactly what are needed to make these performances not just good but engaging.

Honestly, I don’t even think the lackluster acting is the fault of the cast.  There are some very strong talents here such as Rooney Mara as the film’s lead Nancy Holbrook and Thomas Dekker, who I know well from the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  I think the blame is entirely in the hands of director Samuel Bayer.  My point of proof here is Clancy Brown.  Let’s put The Kurgan aside.  Go watch Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and you will see a charismatic, lively, and excellent performance by Brown in a very grounded role.  The main difference is that’s Kathryn Bigelow, an Academy Award winning director who has done increasingly incredible work over the years.  Samuel Bayer is making his feature film directorial debut here after almost two decades of directing nothing but music videos.  This movie does look fantastic, but beyond the great visuals, there is nothing here that impresses at all.  That’s what I keep seeing from all of these Platinum Dunes directors – movies that have excellent visuals and polished cinematography, but are very hollow, uninspired, and unimaginative.  Music video directors know how to make a good looking product, but have next to no experience working with actors to craft anything more than superficial performances.  Surely, sometimes you get a Russell Mulcahy or David Fincher, but there are far more directors like Samuel Bayer and Jonathan Liebesman that come around who just have little to no talent working with actors and drawing out a strong performance from them.  They are good visual storytellers, to a degree, but lack the multi-facetted skills required to be a full-fledged filmmaker.

I think the biggest shortfall of this film is the lack of genuine suspense and tension.  I was only afraid of another jump scare coming out of nowhere, and frankly, it kept me too on guard.  I kept bracing myself for another cheap scare.  This film just throws jump scare after jump scare after jump scare at you.  It takes no talent or skill to have someone jump out of the shadows with a loud musical stinger behind it.  It’s cheap and worthless.  And some of the gags are so blatantly setup that I called them before they even happened.  The result of all this is the fact that Freddy doesn’t feel built up enough.   He’s not a looming figure screwing around with you making you squirm.   He’s the boogeyman jumping out at the shadows every chance he gets like a kid on Halloween, and that’s simply a hollow, go-nowhere idea that shows the difference between a blunt, shallow filmmaker and someone like Wes Craven or James Wan who knows how to build up atmosphere, tension, suspense, and manipulate the nuanced aspects of a film to truly scare you.

Aside from the respectable, moody cinematography, I will give credit to the film in that the tone is kept serious.  There is no camp humor or jokey qualities to it.  The filmmakers try to keep it very solid, focused, and dramatic.  Sadly, the skill of the filmmakers is too thin to hold the weight that the film should have.  The entire film does feel like a product designed to grab dollars and be forgotten.  There is no artistic passion behind any of it, and the quality of the story suffers for it.

As I said in a previous Elm Street movie review, I do applaud that the various filmmakers always tried to introduce new, fresh ideas into the franchise, and never just laid back on carbon copy sequels.  The downside is that the new ideas haven’t always worked, and the entire plot of misdirection regarding Krueger’s possible wrongfully accused back story is poorly handled.  The way Krueger acts throughout the picture doesn’t lend credence to a man who was dealt a grave injustice, but an evil, sadistic man who enjoys torturing and slaughtering people.  All the while, our lead characters are running around trying to unravel a mystery that ends up being a red herring, and thus, it was all just a giant waste of the audience’s time and attention.  The idea is not executed well to misdirect an audience, and there is ultimately no pay-off for it, regardless.  Not to mention, it’s an extreme plot contrivance that every single one of these kids blocked out the memory of Fred Krueger and their time at that school.  So, it was a potentially interesting idea, but with how short-sighted every idea is in this film, it had no hope of actually developing into anything close to its potential.  That is another easy, blanket statement to apply to everything in this film.

The visual effects of this remake are really not very good.  For one, there’s no excuse whatsoever for CGI blood in an A Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  NONE!  It looks cheap and unconvincing.  There are a number of effects here that are passable, but the bad stuff really just jumps out at you.  Also, this movie proves that a simple practical effect and some artistic vision trumps digital effects.  The scene of Krueger pushing through the wall, which was achieved in the original with Robert Englund literally pushing himself against a latex wall above Heather Langenkamp, looks like flat, uninspired garbage in this film as a digital effect that seems like a leftover from The Frighteners.  And on a similar level is Platinum Dunes’ regular composer Steve Jablonski’s score.  Where Charles Bernstein’s score for the original was fresh and inspired with a perfect nursery rhyme style theme, Jablonski’s score is forgettable and entirely typical.  The original Elm Street theme appears only once, and that is when the film’s title card slams onto the screen.  It’s never heard again, and once again shows how little reverence these filmmakers had for the property they were dealing with.

And while the supporting cast is decently well acted, no one stands out.  No one really takes the stage and defines themselves apart from anyone else.  I do think it was a poor decision to not have a John Saxon style character here.  A mature adult character with compassion and a level head who could carry substantial weight with him.  Yes, there are actors here with that capability, but the writing and directing take no advantage of the talents that it does have to make these characters anything but mediocre, drab, and shallow.  The whole film does feel like it’s playing it a little too safe, including the acting.  If they pushed the boundaries further, maybe it would be more engaging and potentially scary.  Craven’s original film did things that were original, new, and innovative.  This remake just comes off as a tired, passionless piece of merchandise.

Quite frankly, there was no one trying on this film.  They followed the script like a blueprint and just created a film as flat as the paper that script was printed on.  One of Platinum Dunes’ big problems is that they keep getting music video directors who have no experience with a script, actors, or crafting scenes, only in creating a three minute long marketable image for a band.  They really need to get a real director who knows how to create an engaging ninety minute story with dimensional characters and coherent plotting.  Not to mention, a filmmaker who can actually make a suspenseful, scary horror film.


Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time.  It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it.  It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man).  The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value.  However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.

In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm.  After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano).  Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal.  Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold.  However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts.  The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing.  The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky.  This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones.  Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving.  They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.

The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig.  He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene.  Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him.  Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion.  Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in.  Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher.  The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion.  Things such as you have to earn God’s presence.  You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune.  Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.

Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts.  Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive.  Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited.  To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel.  In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him.  That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth.  He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character.  He just exists in the film.  Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.

Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her.  It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be.  However, it’s not bad.  Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great.  Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum.  Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters.  His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him.  The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal.  However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.

The supporting cast is a little mixed.  Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves.  Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde.  He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly.  However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly.  It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto.  He seems like a plain supporting cast member.  Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything.  Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way.  He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome.  To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute.  So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot.  It’s terribly by the numbers.

As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens.  I just felt like everything was held back.  That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens.  While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before.  The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting.  It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies.  Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all.  It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them.  It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species.  They just want it because it has monetary value.  That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further.  The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people.  Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around.  Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something.  Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through.  Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them.  Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.

I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept.  Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality.  That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it.  CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this.  One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity.  They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.

The visual effects are about mid-grade.  They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards.  They service the story, and that’s about it.  They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all.  They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.

Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals.  The sound design and score are really solid.  I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes.  However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got.  Those such scenes are handled excellently.  They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them.  Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them.  It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones.  The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film.  It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie.  It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways.  Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.

Favreau does handle the action scenes very well.  They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement.  The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone.  Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension.  Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens.  I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.

Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles.  Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad.  It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors.  What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point.  Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters.  It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.