POSTED ON AUGUST 31, 2011:
Horror and comedy both worth seeing
Though last week saw the release of Fright Night -- brief synopsis: sucked -- the summer of 2011 hasn't been a year for mainstream horror, or much horror at all. By this time in 2010 the genre had seen much more attention from the bigger studios (with Resident Evil: Afterlife, Let Me In, Paranormal Activity 2, Saw 3D -- Cop Out -- among others) and the not so big (The Human Centipede). But aside from Insidious -- brief synopsis: didn't totally suck -- 2011's dearth of mainstream horror has been notable.
So Don't Be Afraid of the Dark feels like a bit of fresh air. As a re-make of a fairly quaint 1973, Lorimar-produced ABC television film updated by sharp visuals, Guillermo del Toro's trademark storytelling and creature design and a (rather undeserved) R-rating it's an amalgam of a classical horror throwback with the appeal of a family film. Not family-friendly, mind you, (unless it's a cool family!) but a family film vibe, nonetheless.
Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison) is sent from California by her mother to stay with her architect father in Rhode Island at Blackwood Manor, an ancient (by American standards) mansion. Her dad, Alex (Guy Pearce) is renovating the sprawling mansion with his interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), aiming to get it on the cover Architectural Digest.
Sally, learning she has essentially been abandoned by her mother, is desperately unhappy (del Toro plays often with the themes of dislocation and alienation in kids sundered from stability) so she distances herself from her father, alienates Kim and earns the sympathy of the estate's groundskeeper, Harris (Jack Thompson) -- who keeps a watchful eye on her explorations of the old, dark house.
When one of those explorations reveals the presence of an unknown basement, Alex and Kim discover a secret, walled-off door that leads to the studio cellar of the mansion's ancestral owner, the crazed (?) artist Emerson Blackwood who disappeared with his son over a century before. While Alex and Kim marvel at the bizarre, long-hidden and disturbing paintings of pale-faced monstrosities, Sally becomes enticed by the forebodingly sealed-off furnace and the soft whispers that drift up from its unknown depths. Curiosity, as it will in a disaffected child, proves too powerful to ignore, never considering what might be have been waiting throughout the ages to escape imprisonment.
As with the del Toro-produced Orphanage, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark feels like a minor del Toro film by proxy of its adept, if somewhat workman-like, director, Troy Nixey making his feature film debut here. Nixey ably captures the atmosphere of malevolence born of del Toro's signature narrative touchstones and production design, with his rich visual chops. Nixey's shots, brought to ambient life with some gorgeous cinematography by Oliver Stapleton (The Shipping News), achieve a giddy sense of dread while being nice relics to the effectiveness of letting composition, as opposed to frenetic editing, elicit creepy tension.
Not So Dark.
Even better, del Toro's script (re-uniting him with Matthew Robbins for the first time since Mimic) indulges in his predilection to imbue his monsters with personalities and a back story, adding depth to them that goes beyond the finely detailed creature design and great FX work -- which Nixey wisely shows less of in the interest of chills and tension.
As Sally, Bailee Madison (who at 10-years old already has a formidable IMDB page) turns in a good performance, though one-note by design -- in the octaves of disaffected, sad or terrified. But she handles it well, and the script avoids turning her into a mini-adult with insight and knowledge beyond her years.
Guy Pearce is typically solid here though he, like most every character in the film, isn't particularly deeply written. (Sally being on Adderall qualifies as a character trait, though it has little underlying importance -- Harris is a plot device unceremoniously dumped as soon as his usefulness is exhausted). Pearce mines what there is and makes the most of it.
Katie Holmes has taken a lot of shit from film geeks (myself included) for her light-weight chops and for being the weak link in Batman Begins. Here she's exhibiting some unlooked for presence and a good chemistry with Madison (who oddly looks like she could be Holmes' actual daughter). It was enough to make me forget her Stepford-like, real life.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't quite stick the landing. It's almost a given that once the air is let out of the first couple of acts that the climax seems underwhelming in the horror genre -- though it doesn't deflate nearly as much as Insidious and is never as silly. Its classical construction is suffused with considerate odes to an earlier style of horror filmmaking and storytelling that feel quaint, and a little on the rails (if comfortingly so), in an era of hyper stylized visual bombast and matter-of-fact violence. And that's a plus.
That's why it has that odd family film vibe -- sure it's a little gruesome, but the body count is not high -- in that any kid would be completely sucked in and summarily freaked out; then want to go again, like a roller coaster.
Movie marketing for huge films, be they comedy, drama, horror or whatever, rarely leaves you guessing as to what you're going to get anymore. The nature of big budget filmmaking can't leave too much to chance when enticing filmgoers to drop the equivalent of a mid-range, dinner for two at a favorite nightspot on something unknown.
That's why when I wind up seeing a new movie, marketing unseen, I get more from it. As the genre, style and narrative unveil themselves my sense of satisfaction at its surprises is multiplied, even if the film itself is only middling.
And The Guard is not middling. This sly, near-beautifully crafted and funny as hell Irish comedy is the best kind of surprise. A film you want to watch again as soon as the credits roll (almost a requirement to catch all the jokes).
Sergeant Gerry Boyle (a priceless Brendan Gleeson) is an unconventional Irish cop (in the opening scene he watches as joy riders blow past his patrol car, knowing they'll have a fatal accident at that speed then blithely liberates one of the corpses of some LSD which he immediately drops) whose somewhat ambiguous view of the law belies his inherent morality.
When a body turns up in an apparent cult murder, Boyle and his partner launch an investigation that soon runs into the larger case of a group of international drug dealers, led by Sheehy (Liam Cunningham) and Clive Cornell (Mark Strong) who are being pursued by FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). Forced to utilize local law enforcement -- who are already being bought off by the dealers -- Everett and Boyle become an unlikely team, who slowly learn to put up with each other's idiosyncrasies as they put together the clues to the bad guy's ultimate whereabouts.
As a directorial debut from John Michael McDonagh, who also wrote the script, The Guard is a fine first feature that bodes well for his future. McDonagh crafts smart characters (and some delightfully less so) with great dialogue that's dense with comedic jabs, mostly from Gleeson whose dead-on delivery and wonderfully layered performance breathe volumes of funny depth into Boyle. Patterned after Irish country men who often veil their intelligence in a façade of ignorance ("You know, I can't tell if you're really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart," Everett tells him) Boyle's drinking, whoring and generally unprofessional approach to law enforcement -- which provide the laughs -- contradicts his sharp wits and inherent decency.
Set against the typically by-the-book American FBI man (whom Boyle gives endless amounts of uninformed shit for everything from the Waco massacre [that was the ATF] to being a black guy who's never smoked crack) Boyle and Everett naturally work through their forced partnership, coming to a grudging respect that falls just short of true friendship. It's a buddy cop movie trope you've seen before--indeed, The Guard doesn't gain many points for originality--but in McDonagh's deft hands it takes on a freshness all its own.
The Guard is also a beautifully shot film in the hands of cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut, Bronson). Wonderfully lit and saturated compositions make the most of the films color palette while the camera work remains subtle, letting the scenes breathe and the comedic chemistry speak for itself.
Gleeson is great as Boyle. The roughhouse cop who uses the word "fuck" like perfectly timed punctuation and yet turns into a mournful teddy bear in the presence of his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan).
Cheadle does his best comedy work when he's not playing straight-laced (see: Out of Sight) but he and Gleeson enjoy a great chemistry that helps pad the blow of nearly satirical climax.
Mark Strong, unsurprisingly, takes the few scenes he's in and chews on them like corn off the cob. The guy is never less than magnetic even if he's written a bit too much for laughs. Even the bad guys in The Guard are charming.
It feels light due to its well-worn conventions. But cracking, funny dialogue; incredibly fun performances and a flat out gorgeous look elevate The Guard to something more than a genre-referential buddy-cop retread.
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