Last week I took a daring trip into the unknown, facing two potentially unbearable pieces of cinematic dreck, films jettisoned by their studios into the faces of filmgoers everywhere, too mainstream and seemingly formulaic to earn the respect of the intellectual elite, with perhaps too broad a focus to attract the eye of even the dumbest redneck searching for the next popcorn-muncher to bide the time between giant robot splatterfests. I’m talking about the two movies you failed to see this past weekend, Date Night and A Nightmare On Elm Street. In a single sitting, I stomached both of these cinematic monstrosities, wrapped my brain (and palpable ego) around them, and have returned with the knowledge of their respective quality. Why is this such a big deal? Because I found both films to be so surprising that their reviewership could only be handled by one massive double-review double-feature entitled:
DATE NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
(The FIRST, and preferably last, INSTALLMENT)
And away we go.
Review the First: Date Night
It should be assumed that the comedic coupling of Tina Fey and Steve Carrell will produce laughs, but based on the cinematic offerings of either thusfar, the pickings for genuine humor are slim. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a Mean Girls or Anchorman fan as anyone, but by the same token, you wouldn’t expect me to grab my Baby Mama or Evan Almighty blu-rays when company arrives for movie night. Both Fey and Carrell have proven in their television careers that they are capable actors and writers with an innate sense of comedic improvisation. Oftentimes their performances are so subtle and character-based that their laughs get handed off to bigger, broader performers, the Tracy Jordans and Dwight Schrutes of the world. As a comedic improviser, writer and performer myself, I cannot help but applaud their commitment to character in the face of cheesier choices towards easier laughs. It’s the sort of comedic determination that separates the Carlos Mencias from the Sacha Baron Cohens, the difference between a placating purveyor of fart-jokes and a comedian committed to performing in the skin of a different human being, choosing the reality of the character’s universe over the potential for easy one-liners. That is not to say that Ali G was free of fart-jokes or that Dwight K. Schrute is anything less than the finest partially-improvised character currently on television. In order to be the primary or focal character in a comedy series of the modern era, a Leslie Knope or a Michael Bluth, the parameters and regulations of the character’s personal philosophy dictate his potentiality for obtaining laughs, and not the other way around. Sound overly scientific? It’s my opinion- and the opinion of this Board of Study- that comedy is equally as scientific, if not moreso than drama. The building of tension in drama is more of an art form than most methods of expression, but the precision necessary to sustain laughter and accentuate the humorous in a comedic situation is much akin to the construction and deconstruction of chemical compounds. And I say this not just as a humble blogger of thoughts, but also as a big fan of technical jargon that Walt might use to analogize on Breaking Bad.
All that psychobabble notwithstanding, Date Night is a shockingly likable comedic effort from a cast of characters who probably should be granted free reign to work together and improvise with each other in front of cameras for the next few decades. Like it’s buddy cop movie roots (yes, that’s right, I did not say rom-com) Date Night works best when its central characters are playing with each other to the point where you can see the authentic smiles of the actors underneath, like those moments in Midnight Run when through sheer irritation it seems like Charles Grodin has actually gotten through Robert DeNiro’s shell to his core on a human-to-human level. There are brief glimpses of actual attraction and romantic chemistry onboard in Date Night, but they are usually too far-flung or fleeting to underscore the movie with any real heart. Those looking for a movie packed with equal parts comedy and romance will be surely disappointed, but those looking to be surprised by a scene in which two cars fuse together in a wholly illogical but mostly enjoyable display of movie-physics are in for a delightful ride. I happen to like the sensible yet mainstream tone of this picture, and I think the person(s) in charge of casting this movie should be commended for their efforts. All of the bit players in Date Night get moments to shine (some far too often in Marky Mark’s case) but the whole thing does revolve around a simple mistaken identity premise, so don’t expect much in way of story beyond “we’ve gotta get to the next set piece!”
There’s an authentic charm to Date Night that stems from the warmth of the lighting and the genial way in which director Shawn Levy portrays New York City and family life in general. It’s certainly a step in the right direction from his portrayal of D.C. in Night at the Museum 2, wherein he accurately recreated the city’s economic turmoil by taking a shit on a pile of studio money. In spite of its broad and ridiculous situations, the likeability factor really outweighs a lot of the silliness at play here, and it’s often just fun to hear Fey and Carrell comment to one another as they run from one misadventure to the next, like the endless patter between the stars of It’s Always Sunny. I would say that had this movie actively made an effort to be more of a romantic comedy than a buddy cop / action movie, it might have had the potential to affect more people’s emotions or stick with them longer than the next comedy movie. In a way, Date Night is the straight-edge equivalent of Pineapple Express, another movie where bumbling buddies are thrown headfirst into the world of professional criminals. You can’t count on Date Night for the same kind of broad but offensive laughs as Pineapple Express, but you can be sure that it will go toe-to-toe with that movie in the charm department any day. Date Night has so much good will that it’s hard for me to fault its meager middle-of-the-road aspirations. This might be as close as we can get to an intelligent American comedy these days, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Surprised, no? I was too. Let’s move on to the next review, a midnight opening night viewing of the new horror remake…
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I was never a fan of the original movie in this series, never saw it when I was young enough to be scared by it or drunk enough to appreciate it for its camp value. The only movie I really liked in the original series was Dream Warriors, just because it stars a young orderly by the name of “Larry” Fishburne, a.k.a Morpheus, and features teens traveling into Freddy’s hellish dreamscape so they can conquer him with “dream powers.” That’s right, twisted bizarro dream-land superheroes. You heard it here last. I was always more of a Friday the 13th guy, not much fandom beyond the first one, but for the original movie’s genre-defining story structure, gratuitous Kevin Bacon sex-murder, and Tom & Jerry style dispatching of its (surprising) final villain, it will always hold a place in my heart. When I saw last year’s Friday the 13th remake I thought it was hilarious that they decided to take a huge risk and blatantly sequelize the original film they were “remaking,” starting their new movie immediately where the original left off, creating one of those weird Superman Returns-style narrative parallel dimensions where the series can be watched in multiple terrible ways and will inevitably lead to mass message board continuity hysteria and Kool-Aid based cult suicide.
But I digress. A Nightmare On Elm Street is back and I would argue better than ever. There’s nothing beyond the shallow exterior of Freddie’s dream-based quips and subsequent murders, but there’s something unmistakably cinematic about the choices of movement, framing and mis-en-scene in this remake, making each shot or sequence of Nightmare deeply unsettling, jarring and occasionally nausea-inducing. Director Samuel Bayer’s experience in music videos definitely allowed him to transport his characters easily from their narrative reality to Freddie’s hellish dream landscapes, making a smooth transition from calm to eerie on a regular basis. He also has a great capacity for sustaining tension over the course of numerous scenes, making it unclear whether the audience should prepare for another scare or finally relax. In most circumstances the moments that should make people jump actually deliver, and I think the real quality of this picture will come down to how many people are willing to invest emotionally in the semi-corny premise that has been around for three decades already. Freddie’s a not-so-trustworthy children’s caretaker who returns from the dead to torment his former daycare kiddies with dream-like murder scenarios, all with brutal effects in the real world. The movie does little to reinvent Freddie as a character or justify his supernatural existence in any legitimate way. It simply presents the scenario (within three minutes of the movie’s opening) and let’s the claws fly. If you’re not onboard with the premise from a Nightmare On Elm Street sold-on-name-alone kind of way, there will be little to win you over to the franchise.
For fans of the franchise and fans of camp-horror alike, there is much to be enjoyed. The scares delivered consistently for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the inventiveness (or referential nature) of the kills, especially the one they saved for last. There’s a really strange narrative structure at work here that adds to the general unsettling feeling. You’re never quite sure who your main characters really are until the third act, a would-be moronic decision for any genre other than this one, in which the chapter-to-chapter jumps in focus from one character to another serve to underscore its already unsettling tone. Without certainty as to whose fate is secure, it becomes easy to take each scene as a possibility for terror, and while I understand that the lack of traditional narrative might produce boredom in others, it worked for me in an experimental way rather than a flawed one. The Friday the 13th remake was so lazily formulaic in plot structure that it actually resorted to weed-humor to liven up its proceedings. I liked this remake’s sense of self-importance and I dug its visual style. I think Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddie is better than the original. I also think this is a real easy sequel, assuming people give it enough of a chance to actually enjoy it. There are some people who prefer utter darkness and brutality in their horror, those fans of the Saw franchise and others, but I personally prefer a little bit of comedy in mine, whether tongue-in-cheek or not. Freddie’s one-liners are enjoyable, and the ridiculous brutality of some of the kills raises Mortal Kombat-level questionability as to how serious the movie takes itself. Are the kills hilarious punctuation to all-too-melodramatic scenes of dialog? Is Samuel Bayer in on the joke? These questions are too cerebral to be answered within the haphazard constraints of the screenplay, but the director’s own talent level and personal ability shine through when the acting and dialog do not.
On opening night at midnight, plenty of young geeky gentlemen were adorned in creepy Freddy sweaters, and it seemed like the film school crowd was really excited to welcome back the franchise. There was this weird girl sitting next to me who kept trying to rub her leg against mine during the scary parts, but other than that, it was a pretty fun experience. I felt really bad when this big guy who works at The Farm restaurant next door fell down on his knees while he was walking up the stairs, but the same sense of schadenfreude that allowed me to chuckle under my breath at his misfortune also allowed me to enjoy the frightening situations the characters faced in Nightmare. So maybe my sadism is a good thing. If you have any sick side of your personality that loves quips, gore and blood galore, this flick might be for you. It was clear that I was seated in an audience destined to enjoy the movie, but I can easily envision a not-so-scary 4 pm Saturday matinee in a mostly dead house, forced to endure the loud but justified sighs of a not-unlike-Al-Gore gentleman sitting midway to the back of the theater. If you want it to work, it will work, in a way similar to Paranormal Activity but unlike Orphan. It’ll terrify you triumphantly if it’s taken with a pinch of salt.
And that concludes our brief foray into the unknown. Not too scary right? Well, some parts were pretty scary, like when that guy almost fell down the stairs and died. But anywho, I hope you enjoyed the reviews. If you did, please leave a comment so I can obsess over it or respond immediately and try to out-quip you. Whoever leaves the best #hashtag wins! Go!