Friday, August 26, 2011

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" Review

Horror is kind of like porn. Either it's convincing and effective or it's embarrassing and laughable. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the latter, and there isn't even any nudity. This haunted house of clich├ęs shepherded by Guillermo del Toro brings nary a new idea to the table, and doesn't even execute on old ones effectively. Chalk that up to first time feature director Troy Nixey, who does suspense about as well as Jenna Jameson does acting. And in the end, it's the audience that gets screwed.

Stop me if you've heard this one. A family at odds moves into a charming old mansion with a (gasp!) terrifying secret. If, during Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, you find your mouth agape, it's more likely your letting loose a yawn than a scream. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes play parent and guardian respectively to Sally (Bailee Madison), a sulky Los Angeleno forcibly relocated to Rhode Island and relinquished into her father's care. While exploring the nooks and crannies of her lonely new home, Sally awakens a long-dormant evil, and yada yada yada.

Where it isn't derivative, Nixey's film is asinine. Even the title makes no sense. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a movie that validates fear of the dark. The characters don't surmount their supernatural oppressors with courage; they fight them with light. That is, when they think to. Somebody ought to propose an "all lights all the time" policy in this house, because the amount of time spent fumbling for flashlights is entirely unnecessary.

Del Toro co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins, and there isn't a fresh idea between them. A thematically faithful remake of the 1973 TV movie of the same name, 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is haunted by logical fallacies, dull stereotypes, and uninspired scare tactics. Has del Toro become so ensconced in his producorial duties that his writing has irrevocably lost its creative spark? I hope for The Hobbit's sake it hasn't.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is so uniformly sloppy, however, that no one person can shoulder the blame. The acting is subpar; I can't remember the last time I saw an entire cast deliver such a collectively mediocre performance. Whether fault lies with the actors themselves or the inexperienced director is debatable, but that the film suffers is undeniable.

If a paltry few circumstantially effective jump scares are your measure of success, then by all means plunk down your 11 bucks for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Just don't expect to be afraid. Every year we get a few great dramas, and one or two good comedy and action flicks. What gives? Why should horror have the lowest success ratio, and its fans the lowest standards? When was the last time a film genuinely scared you?

Audiences shouldn't settle for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Like a bad porno, we're left bored by its expository sequences in anticipation of the action. And then the action arrives and underwhelms. We can't even fast-forward. The whole dim, dumb movie is an exercise in textbook tedium, created as though by combining at random items from the approved horror glossary, 666th edition. Horror, like porn, leans on the believability of its flimsily constructed reality. When that spell is broken, it's only too apparent that you're staring at some guy's bare ass. In this case, del Toro's.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"30 Minutes or Less" Review

Jokes are overrated. The best comedies cull humor from character flaws, and while the cast of 30 Minutes or Less has those to spare, human foibles have little bearing on the way these people behave. Instead, it's about one-liners and crass one-upmanship in a string of exponentially less believable scenarios. First time screenwriter Michael Diliberti (previously credited as executive assistant to producer Scott Rudin) blunders his way past a great premise to lowest common denominator comedy.

Nick (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network) is a pizza delivery boy who gets jumped by a pair of goons (Danny McBride, Nick Swardson), and strapped with a bomb and an ultimatum: rob a bank within ten hours or face the explosive consequences. Sounds exciting, right? Wrong.

Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer ignores the inherent tension. The homemade bomb should be a volatile, omnipresent threat, but there's never any indication that the device will actually explode. Granted, I'm not expecting Hitchcock here, but if I can't have suspense, even logic would suffice. With a whole ten hours on the clock, Nick and his buddy Chet (Aziz Ansari) idiotically ignore every safer stratagem at their disposal while playing ball with the crooks.

Part of the problem is that McBride and Swardson are portrayed as such inept villains, and occupy so much screen time. 30 Minutes or Less, at 90 minutes or less, prominently features these characters out of necessity to fulfill its own feature-length ambitions. Dramatically, it makes no sense — is Nick really the type of guy who would steal $100,000 at the behest of stooges like these?

A better 30 Minutes or Less would have ditched its emphasis on the antagonists and focused instead on Nick's foiled attempts to extricate himself from his predicament. As it stands, he seems all too willing to make himself an antihero: not just in robbery, but in voluntary crimes like grand theft auto and threatening a cop. It would have been more believable and exciting if the character complied only as a desperate last resort. That his roommate accompanies him on the heist is more asinine still.

As always, if 30 Minutes or Less were funnier, it would be easy to forgive the injustice done to its premise. The humor is hit-and-miss leaning toward the latter, and even my eager audience was rendered deafly silent by many of McBride's big moments. It isn't expressly his fault — his character just doesn't belong in the movie, and there's not much character there to begin with.

To draw a comparison, Tropic Thunder ranks among my favorite action-comedies of recent years because its characters instigate the plot, not vice versa. In that film, dramatic tension is elevated by the conflicting egos of its cast. In 30 Minutes or Less, narrative devices as lethal as Nick's bomb vest routinely hold the story ransom.

But the real robbery isn't a bank job — it's the shameless adoption of modern comedy's worst habits by Diliberti and Fleischer. From their casts of emotionally stunted man-children to their disposable pop-culture jabs and gratuitous bawdy dialogue, the irony of these R-rated comedies is that they cater to a PG-13 crowd. 30 Minutes or Less had an opportunity to distinguish itself with action beats, but the nearest it comes to Die Hard and Lethal Weapon is mentioning them. Even in a summer with little competition, Fleischer's film is light on laughs and even lighter on character. Now there's a commodity that's underrated.