By Matt Smith
This month has found me undertaking a new, exciting and potentially very time consuming aspect of my life. I recently started studying for my MA in Film and Media Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, and have finally begun adjusting to my new schedule. With all of my reading and various course-related work and viewings, it’s probably a safe bet that the direction of my writings for this site will be heavily influenced by that material, mostly so that I can keep up with my obligations for this site, as well as so I don’t stray too far from what I should be spending my time on in the first place, which is all school related.
In any case, here is my previous (and final) month’s independent viewings that I totally watched all by my lonesome. Not as varied as some months, to be sure, but the coming sets of Capsule reviews promise to be eclectic in almost every way, encompassing the things I must watch for three different seminar classes as well as the few things I’m able to make time for outside of class.
Red Riding Hood
It’s a damn shame when not even the presence of Gary Oldman is enough to make your movie watchable. This re-imagining and update of the classic fairy tale comes in a post-Twilight world of dark teenage romances and idiotic fawning over this or that boy or girl in almost every teen-marketed movie. Red Riding Hood even shares the first film in that series’ director, Catherine Hardwicke, who was once a promising indie director who has apparently come to think of herself as the dark and brooding fairy tale romance queen or something. Say what you will about that sparkling-vampire series – they’re incompetently made and written and plotted at almost every level – but at least there’s an attempt being made by comparison to this semi-abomination. Oldman, by the way, plays a werewolf hunter come to a village that is being stalked by a werewolf, and who is going to kill and eat Amanda Seyfried’s character, Valerie (the hood of the title, of course). They’re both good with what they’ve got, but what they’ve got isn’t a lot. I will say that there are more than a few shots that are simply stunning from a purely visual perspective, and the production design is top-notch, but there’s so little going on behind the eyes it makes me long for the days when not everything had to be a stupid effing romance for illiterate girls to swoon over and be all goth-y.
This movie, produced by the newly revised genre shingle Hammer Films, somehow got ushered directly to DVD here in the U.S., though it’s a pretty good flick that fully deserves some love and attention. Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hilary Swank, this killer landlord picture is well-made top to bottom, though it ultimately doesn’t add up to much more than a good time. Swank plays a newly single surgeon in New York who stumbles upon a too good to be true low rent gigantic apartment in Midtown, and starts hooking up with her landlord (Morgan), who seems like a nice guy, but also secretly has a network of passages and windows built into the walls of the apartment building so he can spy on tenants. There’s a great throwback to the classic Hammer pictures with the inclusion of Christopher Lee as Morgan’s ailing grandfather. The movie’s atmospheric, and with a high-caliber cast, I highly recommend it, especially to genre fans. Sure, it’s probably not much more than a revelry in classic exploitation nastiness, but it’s a creepy good time, and should have seen a U.S. theatrical release.
The directorial debut of Josh Radnor, the extremely likable star of How I Met Your Mother, this movie was a pleasant surprise and deviation from typical mosaic indie comedies in which various characters find themselves during mid-life crises. A large cast, including Malin Akerman, Zoe Kazan, Kate Mara, Richard Jenkins, newcomer Michael Algieri, and Radnor himself, all round out this story of a close-knit group of friends and family in New York, and pull off some pretty great ensemble work. While the storyline with Akerman’s Annie, a sufferer of alopecia looking for love and security, goes almost nowhere, the main thread with Radnor’s Sam and a lost foster-care child is pretty innovative, particularly in that everything doesn’t exactly end in a sunny place for Sam when the police finally find out that he’s got the child in his care after a week without reporting him. The movie may only add a bit to the already bloated “New York stories” genre, and there’s certainly a lot of waxing poetic about the virtues of New York life versus the draw of Los Angeles (a miasma of identity-less, culture-less suburbs stretching on eternally), but I dug it.
A slick, stage-y and farcical British comedy, Wild Target stars Bill Nighy as a professional hit man who is to take out a lovely con artist (Emily Blunt) but falls in love instead. After saving her from a second hit man, and getting caught up with a car washing ginger in the parking garage (Rupert Grint), the trio go on the run from other wet work professionals, and hole up in a mansion out in the country, where the film takes a left turn to a sort of semi-professional domesticity until the girl finds out who Nighy really is. Then the plot ramps back up and everyone is forced into a bloody (but not too bloody) showdown before the family is allowed to live happily ever after. It’s lightweight and confectionary in the best way a British comedy could be, but is not substantial enough an endeavor to think about much afterward. An enjoyable experience, but not totally necessary unless you’re looking for that “beach read” thriller type of thing.
A mostly worthy entry in the bloated zombie apocalypse genre, this is (I believe) the first of the living dead movies to come with the New French Extremity portion of the horror imports, and there’s a lot of squishy bits to be found, and some rather meaty – pardon the pun – morsels that build a string of cliches into an enjoyable diversion. Giving zombie movies a much needed bit of a twist, we get a little personal with one of the doomed survivors, Marco, who is bitten and experiences the painful transformation into one of the enraged mutants of the title. In vivid flashes, we get a sense of what is to come as he is constantly tormented in his mind by visions of his own fate as one of the monsters, crazed and howling in a dank basement somewhere in the forest compound he and his partner, Sonia have holed up in. The opening is gruesome as to be expected, and the middle has a bit of a lull as we become familiar with the pair of survivors and Marco’s predicament, but the ending builds up to them being found by another group and then overrun by an unstoppable horde – familiar territory to be sure, but still terribly effective if pulled off correctly. Here I believe it was. There’s something terrifying about being totally overrun by a large group of monsters that is true of any type of nasty beast, including the savage rape/murders in movies like Last House on the Left and The Devil’s Rejects. Up against large numbers, we may well all be hopeless. Mutants continues to get the message across.
This remake of the mid-80s horror-comedy romp is a late-summer gem, and that’s not coming from me lightly as a fan of the original who was skeptical even until I sat through the opening of this latest in a string of updates of beloved genre classics. Fright Night is a strong example of what a competent remake can be, though, and thanks to a script by TV writer extraoridinaire Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Mad Men) and some dark and gritty cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe, there’s a ton to love about this new flick. Colin Farrell continues to explore his looser side as Jerry, the vampire next door, and he really seems to be relishing the role that is nearly as revelatory as his work in Martin McDonough’s In Bruges three years ago, showing once again that he really can act, and be quite enjoyable. Between this and his other major role this summer, in the comedy Horrible Bosses, he’s been an actor that I’ve enjoyed a whole lot and who is having one hell of a year. The rest of the cast is also a lot of fun, but David Tennant nearly walks off with the whole show as Vegas magician Peter Vincent, retooled from a TV horror host in the original movie to make a mockery of tools like Criss Angel who are soooo dark and mysterious. He’s a hoot, and every time he’s on screen is worth the price of admission by itself. Odd, since he’s the part most fans of the original were worried about most.