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Column Fri Aug 19 2011

Fright Night, Conan the Barbarian, One Day, Viva Riva! & Senna

Fright Night

Here's a newsflash that some of you might not agree with. Some remakes are actually alright. Yes, most of them are made because a familiar title tends to bring in more box office dollars than an unfamiliar one, but every so often the right team of people get together and give enough of a shit about a story and its characters to make something old feel fresh. Welcome to Fright Night, one of the better examples of a horror remake I've seen in quite some time. The original story by Tom Holland (and updated by the great Marti Noxon) about a teenager and a late-night television horror movie host going up against a vampire or two to save a small town still has a bit of fun left in it and some neat new ideas.

My favorite part of the new Fright Night can be boiled down to casting. I actually think some of these actors play these parts better than those in the 1985 version. Anton Yelchin does a terrific job of conveying the sex-starved Charley Brewster, who is a changed man in recent years thanks to pretty girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) and his dad leaving him and his mom (Toni Collette). He's changed so much that he's forgotten his nerdy roots and friends, particularly his former best friend Ed (the perfectly cast Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Ed breaks through to Charley briefly to let him know that his surveillance has revealed that the Brewster's new neighbor (in a suburb of Las Vegas) is more than likely a vampire named Jerry (Colin Farrell, once again pulling an unexpectedly stellar performance out of thin air, as he did in Horrible Bosses).

Charley doesn't believe at first, but then he starts to watch some bizarre behavior coming from next door, and what's worse, he's pretty sure Jerry knows he's being watched. Before it becomes a battle of crossbows and stake guns, Fright Night is first and foremost a battle of wills between Charley and Jerry. Each uses the other's weaknesses to keep the other at bay, but when Jerry threatens Charley's mother and Amy, he seeks the advice of self-proclaimed vampire killer Peter Vincent (David Tennant of "Dr. Who" fame), now a Chris Angel-style Vegas magician with a serious drinking problem rather than a monster-movie TV host. Although he doesn't really show up in the plot until about the halfway point, Vincent is one of the best characters in the film with his rock star/Russell Brand swagger and his penthouse atop the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino loaded with archaic tools for hunting and killing vampires that he's never used.

Vincent's life of torment and isolation is disturbed for the better by Charley entering his life, and their common goal of killing these Vegas vampires brings out the strength and courage he has long needed in his life. Plus, Charley is probably the closest thing to a friend he's made in ages. Their relationship is far more interesting than that between Charley and Amy. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) does a great job keeping Fright Night charging forward and making slight alterations to the vampire mystique and rules, while keeping most of them intact. But it's Farrell that rules the day. I've never seen him pull off being this cocky. He strides and glides through this movie like a snake sporting a pair of bull's testicles. I especially like how mad he gets when someone actually hurts him, but he still manages to smile all the way through it.

Fright Night is nothing more than a successful attempt to entertain an audience with copious amounts of blood and guts, with a few scares tossed in and a whole lot of laughs. If you can, feel free to skip seeing it in 3D; it isn't necessary, unlike last week's Final Destination 5, which looked great in 3D. But I also liked the subtext of Fright Night, which is that it's OK (even desirable) to hold onto your geek roots, because it may one day save your life. That seems perfectly reasonable. Overall, I thought this was a total blood-soaked blast that deserves to be seen with an enthusiastic crowd.


Conan the Barbarian


And then there's this sort-of remake from one of the kings of practice, Marcus Nispel, director of such non-essential relaunches as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. Ugh. I will admit, I had a lot more fun with this version of Conan than I did with his horror reboots. I'm a big, big fan of bat-shit crazy, and with every single performance in this film aiming for the 300 section of the arena, it's hard not to get a kick out of it. With supporting work from Stephen Lang, Ron Perlman and Rose McGowan, lead actor Jason Momoa ("Game of Thrones") has plenty of crazy teat from which to suckle.

I'm not here to compare this film version of Robert E. Howard's barbarian creation with the film Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Milius made in 1982 (I choose to ignore Conan the Destroyer, made two years later), nor am I going to compare this new version with Howard's source material. This movie needs to be judged as its own stand-alone entity, and all the good and awful that brings with it. I liked the early scenes chronicling Conan as a young boy (Leo Howard), setting out with much older boys of his Cimmerian clan on a test to determine who should be named a full-fledged warrior. Perlman plays Corin, the boy's father. When their village is ravaged by an invading force, led by Lang's Khalar Zym, Conan is left fatherless and thirsty for revenge.

And then come the monsters, oceans of blood, witchcraft (courtesy of Khalar Zym's daughter, played by McGowan sporting a wild hair style and sharp metal claws on one hand), vaguely Middle Eastern music, naked ladies, swordplay, something about a mask, and the resurrection of Khalar Zym's long-dead wife, which will somehow lead to him being a god. But of that list, all the filmmakers really seem to care about are the violence and a bit of sex, and there's nothing wrong with that.

What keeps the film from drowning in its own pomposity is Momoa, who is clearly this generation's best choice to play this part. You can tell from watching the smile on his face as he lops someone's limbs off that he cares about getting this character right. I wish others involved in Conan the Barbarian's making felt the same way. What we get instead is shot after shot of CG blood, monsters and landscapes mashed into a terrible-looking 3D experience. And while I'm fairly certain that the film has some intentional humor strewn in amid the gore, those probably aren't the scenes during which I was laughing the hardest.

I reject the idea that the level of violence in this movie is excessive. It all looks so cartoonish that it might as well have been turned into anime. I found the blood and violence in Warrior or Drive far more disturbing, despite them having quite a bit less in them. Conan is having such fun with his savage ways that you can't help by envy the pleasure his bloodlust gives him. Conan the Barbarian is actually a close call for me, but in the end I can't quite muster the enthusiasm to recommend what's here beyond Momoa's feral performance. It's good to see somebody get excited about the kookiness going on in this film.


One Day


From Lone Scherfig, the director of An Education, comes a less-than-great One Day, based on what I hear is a fabulous novel by David Nicholls, who adapted it himself. Sometimes loving, liking, or hating a movie comes down to one thing from which all other things stem. In the case of One Day, that one thing is Jim Sturgess' portrayal of Dexter. I'm not bashing Sturgess at all; he's an actor I've grown to like with this last couple of roles. No, I'm blaming Scherfig for allowing Dexter to be so completely and utterly unlikeable in this tale of a pair of friends — the other being Anne Hathaway's Emma — who we only see on the same day (July 15) every year from the day they graduate university to 20 years later.

Most of these years, they aren't a couple, so they get together to update each other on their respective lives. Dexter goes on to become the obnoxious host of some kind of television chat/game show, and actually convinces himself that his fame is a result of some form of talent and not because he's one of the most hated men in the UK. And that bimbo he's dating, yeah, he thinks she came into his life because of his undeniable charm and wit. Sorry, buddy. You have money, and she wants it. Emma takes a slightly more subtle approach to life, becoming a career waitress and dating a man who is little more than a human sponge. Eventually her belief in herself allows her to continue her real passion — writing — to some degree of success.

What One Day is not is a sweeping love story, and you shouldn't let the commercials for this film fool you into thinking it is. These two people are great friends who takes turns pulling each other out of the dumps, and on that level, there's some charm to the proceedings, but my god is Dexter an asshole, and my primary problem with the film is that I refuse to believe a woman — friend or otherwise — would have remained friends with a guy like this for 20-some years. I can't remember the last time I hated a character more. And it undermines the strength of these actors, who do a realistic job showing us the cumulative effect of their years knowing each other, which is saying a lot because most of the July 15s in this film, they aren't even together, so we get a fraction of a conversation on the phone.

There may be those among you who aren't as troubled and annoyed by Dexter in this movie, in which case, you'll probably flip for One Day. But my hatred of him festered and grew smelly with each passing moment. Even some of the deeply sad closing sequences, I felt Dexter hadn't earned the right to feel sorry for his situation. You act like an asshole, and life deservedly dumps a heap of shit on your head. Simple as that. But if you find his banter witty, you're a more forgiving person than I am.


Viva Riva!


Front loaded with raw energy and an almost-celebratory take on corruption at every level of the socioeconomic strata of Kinshasa, Congo, where this film is set, Viva Riva! is the story of Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), a thug who comes home to the town where he grew up after a long absence. For reasons that are unimportant, Riva has a flatbed filled with precious barrels of gasoline and a whole lot of money that he wants to use to party until he can find the highest bidder for his rare product. But his payload catches the eye of a gangster in the area named Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), who hurts and kills whomever he has to to find Riva and relieve him of his cargo.

But Riva is just foolish enough not to be scared. He has a fearless streak that helps him get out of situations where most men would cower. Cesar is also particularly pissed at Riva because he's stolen his woman, Nora (Manie Malone), who has her own motives for getting close to Riva. And then comes the scariest guy of the bunch, an Angolan crime boss from whom Viva stole the gas in the first place and who rarely walks upright without a gun in hand. In one scene, he literally assesses the many prisoners he has and says, "What value do you have to me right now?" If he doesn't like the answer, he shoots them.

Writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga has won a lot of African film awards for Viva Riva! and rightfully so. The entire production feels authentic in its excesses and dangerous to its core. Torture and death have gone beyond shocking in this criminal culture, so what makes you gasp are the casual nature with which it's all perpetrated. And the way the movie captures the people, both innocent and guilty, is magnificent. This is not an ugly film, just a film about ugly people (most of whom are quite good looking). I love the way Riva laughs and parties and basically gives the middle finger to everyone who is pursuing him, when he should be hiding for his life. But that's just one of the many things that makes Viva Riva! so unpredictable and entertaining. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Senna


I have a vague recollection of the name Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One superstar driver. In many parts of the world, he was considered an inspiration and one the best drivers to ever set tire to track. Directed by Asif Kapadia for ESPN Films, this fascinating documentary about Senna's life begins with his winning a championship Go Kart race in Brazil, and then making the decision to turn pro and go into competitive racing. What strikes you almost immediately is how seemingly every second of Senna's life was captured on film or audio tape, so much so that Senna is able to narrate his own life story from beyond the grave (he died at age 34 during a race many believed should not have been run).

The second thing that one notices watching Senna is that winning is at the emotional core of everything he did, and to watch him explode with anger (sometimes at himself) after losing a race is a thing of beauty. I knew nothing about F1 racing going in, but during the course of the film, the commentators dissect Senna's racing style, strategy, and occasional recklessness. The racing sequences are phenomenal stuff, but equally enjoyable are the scenes of Senna in Brazil being mobbed by fans. His very verbal rivalry with sometime-teammate Alain Prost of France is also a great source of amusement.

It's a rare thing to be able to see the moments in any sports figure's life when he enters the realm of greatness, but Senna is filling with such moments, and you can't help but get caught up in this man's life and feel a huge sense of sadness at this violent death. I do find it strange that the movie essentially ignore Senna's childhood, but I've also heard that there's a much longer version of this film out there, so maybe that's where such footage lies. Still, this is an intriguing sports doc that fans of F1 racing will devour. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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