DVD Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Katie Holmes explores a seriously creepy house.

Katie Holmes explores a seriously creepy house.

There are a few moments in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, an effective but flawed frightfest written and produced by first-class scaremonger Guillermo del Toro, that shred the audience’s nerves like cat claws on curtains, but many more that fall disappointingly flat.

All of the best scares center around the various horrors suffered by pint-sized protagonist Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) as she investigates a creepy Victorian manor being restored by her apathetic father (Guy Pearce) and his concerned girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Contrary to what the film’s title suggests, she is and should be very afraid of the house’s dark corners, where hundreds of nasty little creatures lurk with sinister plans for Sally.

It’s a solid premise for a horror movie, but also where Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, adapted from the 1973 ABC TV movie of the same name, hits its first snag. Though the film’s setting lends it a nicely spooky atmosphere, the movie’s resident monsters are not nearly as terrifying as they’re meant to be. Part of the problem is that they are rendered in truly egregious CGI far too often, and this robs them of all mystery. The creatures would be much scarier antagonists if they weren’t shown so clearly and instead stayed in the shadows, making only one or two appearances throughout the entire movie. As it is, they’re painfully overexposed and ultimately no more terrifying than Spiderwick Chronicles-style gremlins.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark also suffers from a glut of groan-inducing horror tropes, aside from lazy writing and B-plots abandoned almost as soon as they’re introduced. Flashlights never work when they are supposed to, doors never open when they need to, and smart protagonists uncharacteristically make boneheaded decisions when the script calls for it. Too many scares rely on cheap, predictable jump-out ploys. That being said, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t rest on its laurels; it at least tries to make something out of those tropes, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels as the film enters its final act.

Madison is the film’s ace in the hole, expertly communicating Sally’s curiosity, naivety, loneliness, and anger in just a few glances whenever she’s on screen. She’s a lively, three-dimensional character with believable strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to Madison’s emotive performance, Sally is the only character audiences will be hoping gets out alive. Unfortunately, not so much for Holmes and Pearce. The two are resigned to bland, static roles, though Holmes tries harder to make her reluctant mother character admirable and sympathetic than Pearce, who simply chews the scenery.

Despite some nerve-fraying scenes and a palpable sense of dread that permeates the entire movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark never breaks away from its script’s piled clichés to become a bona fide horror movie on its own terms. The most disappointing thing about the film is del Toro himself. Though his name is slapped across the cover, his influence is nowhere to be found. The creatures hold none of the majesty, beauty, or mystery of other del Toro creations, and the film’s scares are never as effective or thoughtful as those in his other projects.

Though its ability to build tension is admirable, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark squanders a promising premise with a lousy script and lacks the richer psychological scares of the original TV movie. Madison and Holmes give it their all, but their performances are undermined by the script’s mediocrity and lackluster special effects. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is ultimately an example of a perfectly serviceable horror flick that could have been so much more. B-

 

Image Courtesy: Miramax.

DVD Review: Lockout

Guy Pearce shoots off bullets and one-liners in 'Lockout.'

Guy Pearce shoots off bullets and one-liners in ‘Lockout.’

Die Hard in space, as sci-fi thriller Lockout could be accurately dubbed, may be the silliest (and stupidest) Die Hard rip-off yet.

Guy Pearce stars as devil-may-care secret agent Snow, who is forced to infiltrate a high security prison to rescue the President’s daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) after the prisoners rebel and take over. The catch? The prison, MS One, is in fact a maximum security space station orbiting Earth.

Pearce is easily the best part of Lockout, playing Snow as a Han Solo clone, complete with gruff charisma and roguish wit. Luckily for the film and audience, he pulls it off. Trading either barbs or blows with every character he comes across, Pearce effectively establishes himself as a more-than-capable leading man. It’s just a shame he’s given so little to work with.

Lockout‘s plot is as described above, and that’s pretty much it. There are no layers to the concept of MS One, though the writers throw some inadequate tidbits to the audience that make the film’s ultimate simplicity all the more frustrating. The fact that Emilie is on board to investigate rumors of prisoner abuse is one of the film’s only thoughtful ideas, but it’s immediately drowned out by explosions and gunfire and never goes anywhere. An undercooked side plot with Pearce’s character being framed for murder back on Earth is so meager and poorly executed that it’s not worth trying to piece together.

There are a lot of missed opportunities in Lockout, which decides to poorly copy better movies instead of introducing its own ideas. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is the movie most plagiarized, from the concept to the characters, but almost every idea in Lockout originated in a different, better movie.

Lockout is about evenly split between effective action sequences and ones that look shockingly crappy. The film’s jumpy, amateurish direction does nothing to alleviate sensory headaches caused by the worst of those scenes. Honestly, at times, the level of thought that went into Lockout makes it appear as if it were made by middle school students taking an Introduction to Filmmaking course, albeit ones with deep pockets.

Atrocious direction aside, Lockout not only asks viewers to suspend their disbelief, but to throw basic laws of physics out the window. Pearce tries his damnedest, but it feels like he’s fighting alone. Lockout‘s directors, producers, and writers (including super-producer Luc Besson) are all perfectly content to let the film float around aimlessly like so much space debris. The supporting cast is no help, with Grace floundering in a thankless role and Peter Stormare mangling already cheesy dialogue as a dull government supervisor.

Lockout wants to be seen as a legitimate action thriller, but it can’t even be truly enjoyed as a parody of the same. With mind-numbingly bad special effects and even worse plot points, Pearce’s fine performance doesn’t even come close to saving Lockout from collapsing under the weight of its own idiocy. Lock this one up and throw away the key. C-

 

Photo Courtery: EuroCorp.

Review: Iron Man 3

 

Stark and Potts prepare for battle.

Stark and Potts prepare for battle.

The last time Robert Downey Jr. suited up for adventure without his super-powered pals, the result was a stalled, inferior sequel that made many question how sustainable the Iron Man franchise actually was. Everything that was enjoyable about the original Iron Man – quippy dialogue, exciting action sequences, and an energetic, devil-may-care feel –  vanished in Iron Man 2. And so, Marvel had a lot riding on Iron Man 3 – its responsibility was nothing less than to revitalize the franchise, deliver a massively entertaining popcorn flick, and ensure that people would be asking for more Iron Man for years to come.

Luckily, director Shane Black  (Lethal Weapon) came through with flying colors. He made many great moves with his addition to the franchise, including a change in tone and terrific plot twists. The script (which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce) is smarter than most, highlighting Tony Stark as a real character and setting up worthy adversaries for him instead of resting on its laurels with big-budget special effects and the movie’s all-but-guaranteed box office success.

The threequel picks up a few months after the Battle of New York featured in The Avengers. Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), once a smug billionaire with playthings of mass destruction, is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Suffering PTSD after an encounter with a Chitauri wormhole, Tony can’t sleep. He spends his days in isolation, tinkering away in the basement of his cliffside Malibu home, drifting away from his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). When agents of the Mandarin, an elusive terrorist played by Ben Kingsley, attack him at his home, destroying the personal world he has fought so hard to protect, Stark suits up again to strike back. Along the way, he uncovers the secrets of a top secret super soldier experiment called Extremis and crosses paths with remorseless scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).

This third installment in the series is noticeably darker and more serious than its predecessors – the villains of the film are remorseless sociopaths, and Stark’s trademark playboy lifestyle has been shoved aside to portray Stark as a damaged man after the events of The Avengers. Black succeeds in moving the movie along at a breakneck pace, and the story is never heavy or grim enough to forsake its fantastical comic-book origins. The film’s only big flaws arrive in the form of its villains; though the Extremis mutants, glowing with molten heat, are terrific to look at on the screen, their motivations leave a little to be desired, and Pearce’s Killian ultimately becomes a little too megalomaniacal for the film’s own good. However, the finished product is so sleek and fun that it’s easy to overlook the film’s weaker aspects.

Black’s greatest tricks in Iron Man 3 are the sharp plot twists that he conjures up, especially around the Mandarin. The movie’s twists lend it an intelligence that both of its predecessors lacked; for the first time in the entire Marvel franchise, I felt intellectually involved in a superhero movie. As much as it is a fun, go-for-broke comic book spectacular, Iron Man 3 also has a lot on its mind, about politics, about identity, about the nature of heroism, and in particular about America’s War on Terror. Stark says early on in the film that, through his own arrogance, he has created “demons,” and the idea of individuals creating their own adversaries to have someone to fight is a non-too-subtle comment on American foreign policy that manifests itself in a huge way with the Mandarin’s storyline. To say anymore would be spoiling one of Iron Man 3‘s biggest and best surprises.

Black directs his action sequences with a pedal-to-the-medal urgency that the previous films lacked. The Mandarin’s assault on Stark’s home with attack helicopters is a heart-pounding, harrowing sequence, as Stark struggles to utilize his latest invention (armor that literally flies at him piece-by-piece, knocking him around a fair deal as it attaches) while his home crumbles around him. When Stark comes across mutated Extremis soldiers, glowing with molten heat, the ensuing battles decimate entire towns and one large jet but never lose their sense of immediate danger. And the finale, as Iron Man and his suits face off against the Extremis mutants on an oil tanker, is a jaw-droppingly ambitious, endlessly inventive piece of movie magic.

Iron Man 3 benefits from Black’s penchant for spur-of-the-moment humor; Stark’s one-liners have never been better, and he doesn’t even have the best ones. There’s a terrific sight gag with an impeccably-timed turning helmet and hilarious deliveries from everyone from Stark to a nameless Mandarin henchman (after watching Iron Man decimate his fellow henchmen, the poor guy begs, “Don’t shoot, please! Honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird”). Iron Man 3 also features one of the most fun and unexpected pairings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe;  when Stark crash-lands in a rural Tennessee town, he is forced to team up with Harley, a precocious, potato-gun-wielding kid (played by Ty Simpkins) who gets a fair number of great lines of his own.

All of the performances in Iron Man 3 are terrific. Downey Jr. finally gets to show off his dramatic range in this installment, presenting a more haunted Stark, plagued by nightmares and terrors he can’t accept. His manic energy is less of a playboy swagger this time around than an ineffective mask behind which he hides his crippling insecurities and anxieties. Watching him struggle to stay functional throughout the movie adds a human element to the larger-than-life character. Funnily enough, he spends less time in the suit in this outing than in the previous installments (it can even be remotely controlled at this point), but that doesn’t necessarily feel like a bad thing. When Stark infiltrates the Mandarin’s hideout using only weapons he cobbled together from a Home Depot, it’s more exhilarating than anything he does while inside his armor. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the idea Iron Man has transcended the suits and weaponry – Tony Stark, in his transformation from playboy to selfless hero, can truly claim by the end of the film that, even without his suits, he will always be Iron Man.

Kingsley walks a delicate line with his Mandarin, but it’s a beautifully measured, consistently surprising performance, and as he growls lines like “You’ll never see me coming” with a Joker-meets-Colonel Kurtz malevolence, you can tell that Kingsley is having a blast. Guy Pearce, at his nastiest, plays Killian with a sneering viciousness. Whereas the Mandarin is more a physically jarring villain, Killian appears as a wolf in sheep’s clothing but is ultimately no less deadly. Paltrow makes the best of the little she has for most of the movie, but she emerges as a kick-ass heroine reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the glorious finale. Don Cheadle, as Tony’s iron-clad buddy Colonel Rhodes (known to the press as War Machine and Iron Patriot), brings a physical spryness and nervous energy to the role that Terrence Howard (who played Rhodes in the first Iron Man) clearly lacked. Sadly, Rebecca Hall is woefully underutilized as a botanist involved with the Extremis program, barely sticking on screen long enough to register. Finally, Simpkins is a terrific addition as Harley, making me hope that Marvel finds a way to include him in future movies.

Iron Man 3 proves that there’s still a lot of life in this franchise, though it will be hard for other directors to top the thrills and smarts of this installment. Black’s blistering, boisterous direction and intelligent script ultimately elevate this threequel above typical blockbuster fare. If Marvel wants to keep their franchises fresh, they need to try to replicate this movie’s success by thinking creatively with their directors and storylines. Because it’s brave, smart, and surprising, but most of all because it’s overwhelmingly entertaining, Iron Man 3 is a ride well-worth taking. A-

Image Courtesy: ScreenCrush.