Black Christmas (2019)
★ / ★★★★
Although Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” is not a straight remake of the 1974 cult classic, it is apparent that the work is without inspiration. The victims, most of them women, still behave as though they have never seen a horror picture and so they end up making the same mistakes as sheep destined to be skewered in slasher movies. You cannot help but groan when a sorority girl asks, “Hello? Is anybody there?” while seemingly alone. You know precisely what’s about to happen when another sorority girl decides to go upstairs to look for an item in the dark. Halfway through, I could not help but wonder about the point of it all. I came to a conclusion: Because slasher flicks are cheaply made—and this movie does look cheap—this is just another desperate attempt to make money. You’d be wise to avoid it.
Yes, it is also one of those “Girl Power!” movies. That is supposed to be its fresh take on this familiar story of sorority girls being terrorized by a killer, or killers, on campus during the start of Winter Break. But that is not enough to make a strong horror story. In a way, an argument can be made the original is already that kind of work. It just wasn’t so in-your-face about it. The feminist stance is utilized like a sledgehammer; notice how the final act is so similar to the final episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which aired fifteen years ago: Women, weapons in hand, rising up against evil. What was fresh and fun then is tired and lame now. It feels forced. Unlike the film, the show was given an entire season to develop its themes.
An attempt is made to make the viewers empathize with the lead character. She is named Riley (Imogen Poots), still traumatized from having been raped by a fraternity president. The authorities were not convinced that she was raped, and so he got away with it. We are provided no information as why the cops did not believe her, or whether they even performed a proper investigation. The screenplay simply insists that we trust the superficial dialogue. Riley copes by staying away from social events, but she does have a core group of friends with whom she feels comfortable to be around (Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady). We expect for these girls to start meeting gruesome deaths just about the halfway point. And they do.
Expository sequences suggest that fraternities are inherently racist. While interminable and preachy on occasion, the screenplay brings up an interesting discussion about legacy and why we as a society, especially us Americans, tend to have a difficult time letting go of certain histories or historical figures even though everybody knows what they stood for. Doing so perpetuates the oppression of people of color, of women, of the poor, of those who may not fit within the heteronormative sphere. But then the screenplay goes nowhere with the ideas it brings up. Instead, we are provided a twist so ridiculous we cannot help but laugh then ask ourselves, “Is this really where the story is going?”
It is ironic that despite its identity politics, “Black Christmas” struggles with staking an identity of its own. Co-writers Takal and April Wolfe should have strived to create a potent horror flick first and foremost. Scares must be present. There must be tension, build-up, suspense, thrills. Catharsis must not only be well-earned, it must make sense within the scope of the story. Instead, we are offered regurgitated material and we are expected to take it passively. It is junk entertainment without the entertainment.
The Poseidon Adventure (2005)
★ / ★★★★
When the bomb that a group of terrorists planted on a luxury cruise ship went off, it caused the SS Poseidon to capsize. The survivors the story focused on were the ones who decided to find away to get out of the ship instead of those who waited to be rescued. Based on a novel by Paul Gallico, “The Poseidon Adventure” wasn’t compelling in any way because it was stripped of real human drama. There were a few very noticeable scenes that were missing. The crumbling marriage was a perfect example. The film didn’t show us the scene in which Richard (Steve Guttenberg) confessed to his wife (Alexa Hamilton) that he was having an affair with a masseuse (Nathalie Boltt) he met on board. Instead, we were left with the wife’s reaction after her husband had informed her. Naturally, she cried and there was yelling involved. Although we followed the Clarke family from beginning to end, we weren’t given the chance to become emotionally invested in them. Moreover, the terrorism angle felt forced and convoluted. A homeland security agent was supposed to be in charge of the safety of everyone on board. But I didn’t get the impression that he took his job seriously. There were shots of him looking serious while sitting in a corner and eventually pulling out his gun when it was so obvious that the terrorist was in front of him. I expected him to be a little more sleuth, like a real detective with thoughts in his brain, as opposed to a misunderstood, moody-looking teen. The scenes with one of the surviving terrorists felt like a poor excuse in trying to understand their psychology and, worse, their purpose. In the end, we learned nothing new. They planted the bomb because their superiors commanded them to do it. There was nothing enlightening about the ordeal so it should have been trimmed from the story. The picture should have been more focused on the individuals attempting to find an escape route. Sure, there were dead ends and they had to come up with alternative plans, but I wanted to see more of their physical struggles rather than watching the superiors in the Navy scrambling what they should do or not do. But I do have say that one of the lieutenants in charge of the rescue mission, Lieutenant Mercer (Matt Rippy), captured my interest. He was smart, calm, and commanded a confidence that was actually likable. I was surprised Rippy wasn’t cast as the husband because it seemed effortless for him to deliver charm and complexity paired with timing that felt right. Written by Bryce Zabel and directed by John Putch, “The Poseidon Adventure” was nonsensical, lacking in suspense, and lazy. The filmmakers’ idea of juggling its many characters was cutting from one scene to another without any sort of flow. Just because we get equal time in seeing the characters on screen, it doesn’t mean that we’re actually learning about them.
Straw Dogs (2011)
★ / ★★★★
David (James Marsden), a screenwriter for movies, and Amy (Kate Bosworth), a television actress, husband and wife from Los Angeles, moved to the South so David could get some work done. While Amy was welcomed by the people she grew up with, especially Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), a former high school flame, David experienced some friction with most of them. As the two settled in their home over a couple of weeks, Charlie and his friends pushed David bit by bit by implying he wasn’t good enough to land a woman like Amy, that he wasn’t enough of a man for her. David aimed to prove them wrong. Based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams, watching “Straw Dogs,” written and directed by Rod Lurie, I felt an overwhelming lack of dimension from its characters. David was the unaware city boy who overstepped his boundaries by flaunting his hundred dollar bills, Amy strutted around outside without a bra but became upset when men looked at her lasciviously, and Charlie was the two-faced villain who felt inferior whenever he heard David’s classical music. As the events slowly escalated from snide comments to full-throttle violence, we learned nothing much about the three them. Amy became very frustrated with her husband’s passive approach. If David did confront Charlie and his friends, it was her husband’s battle (or life) to lose. If she supposedly grew up with them, she should have been more aware of what they were capable of. If anything, she should be one pulling back David’s leash, not getting upset with him when clearly he just didn’t want trouble. Meanwhile, David decided to go hunting with the boys to prove he was a man. If he was so smart and worldly, as depicted on the day the couple moved into their new home, I wondered how he didn’t catch that it wasn’t even hunting season. “What time of year is hunting season?” was easy to type on Google considering he was on his laptop during most of the day. Furthermore, the film introduced characters such as Tom (James Woods), a former high school coach turned alcoholic, and slow-witted Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), in his thirties, who happened to have a history with underaged girls. When David asked why the latter wasn’t put away, Charlie responded, “We take care of our own.” Far from it. Tom’s daughter (Willa Holland), fifteen years old, was attracted to Jeremy. Despite people constantly telling her to keep her distance from him, she couldn’t help herself. Naturally, the father had something to say with his fist. Although Woods’ explosive antics were attention-grabbing, most of the time, the things he had to say felt independent from the movie. Must he be angry all the time? Again, the script was devoid of depth and good performances couldn’t keep the material afloat. “Straw Dogs,” despite its handful of symbolism involving animals, left nothing much to the imagination. I almost forgot about it as soon as it was over. Except the bare-chested Skarsgård. His glistening pecs were memorable.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
Death at a Funeral (2010)
★ / ★★★★
A dysfunctional family dispersed all over the country came together for a funeral. Secrets were revealed, drugs were accidentally taken, old flames encountered each other, a nude man decided to hang out on the roof and threaten suicide–but none of it was particularly funny because the movie was confined in going for the obvious laughs. Even worse, the picture was directed by Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men,” “The Shape of Things”), so I expected a certain level of wit, intelligence and insight in terms of what it meant to mourn and how one’s opinion of somebody else would change when a critical piece of information was revealed. Instead, the movie focused on the surfaces of problems aided by weak acting by otherwise good actors. I did enjoy James Marsden as Zoe Saldana’s high-as-a-kite boyfriend who took some “vicodin” but I wish I could have known him more. I wanted to know how it was for him to constantly be rejected by her father because the father thought the boyfriend was not good enough for his daughter. Of course, there was the race issue which the film constantly brought up but it never tackled the subject with elegance or even an ounce of respect. Being a person of color, even I thought some of the things that were said or the way certain scenes were executed were borderline racist. It made me feel uneasy but I highly doubted it was on purpose as a LaBute project (more commonly) would like its audiences to feel. Chris Rock, as one of the deceased’s sons and arguably where the heart of the film should have been, played a blabbering fool and I did not feel any ounce of sadness because his father died. He let his rivalry with his successful brother (Martin Lawrence) get in the way of spending final moments with his father. In the end, I grew to dislike both of them because they so self-centered. If I had been in that funeral with them, I would have showed them a piece of my mind. I’m not saying that the film needed to be sad because we were at a funeral. My point is that it should have had a sense of balance between sensitivity and willingness to push the envelope. The characters were all the same when they should have been different from one another. Not everybody had to run around screaming or yelling. What about the silent man in the corner? “Death at a Funeral” is a remake but I’m not going to bother comparing this to the original because, as I’ve always said, each work has to stand on its own. This movie failed on multiple levels because it wasn’t willing to look inside itself. It had no idea between having a twisted sense of humor (which I love) and featuring idiocy from one scene to the next until the credits.
Clash of the Titans (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Perseus (Sam Worthington), a demi-god who was unaware that Zeus (Liam Neeson) was his father, decided to take revenge on Hades (Ralph Fiennes) for killing the family that raised him. On a bigger scope, the gods were upset with man because they stopped praying (it’s the source of their power); man was upset with the gods because their quality of life was not as great as it used to be. Both sides could not seem to understand where the other was coming from so the two sides waged war. I think this remake generated a great load of negative reviews because a lot of fans of the 1981 version couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept the changes that this updated version had to offer. It’s completely understandable because we all have our fond memories of certain older movies but those who choose to compare the 2010 to the 1981 version, half the time, are not completely objective. Furthermore, half of the objective reviews had a problem with this movie’s interpretation of the gods–who they were, their motivations, their powers. A lot of questions such as, “Why change this?” or, “Why change that?” quickly get tiresome so I ask, “Why not?” From my share of films involving Greek mythology, none of them 100% follow how the gods were like from the original source. Therefore, I think it was unfair that this specific movie received negative reviews for being inaccurate. For me, it was simple: I saw “Clash of the Titans” from an fantasy-action-adventure perspective and pretended I had no knowledge of who the gods were or how they were supposed to act. From that angle, I thought it worked because the action sequences were exciting (I loved the scene with the giant scorpions), the CGI was well-done even though there were times when it was obvious that the filmmakers used a green screen, and I had fun with how seriously it took itself because there were a handful of unintentionally funny moments. I also liked the fact that this did not follow the overrated film “300” in terms casting men with buldging muscles and constantly (and painfully) showcasing hypermasculinity. It was nice that I don’t have to look at fake abs and men constantly having to prove their manhood by yelling at each other. In other words, it was more focused on trying to tell a story despite the oversimplification of the politics between god and man. Directed by Louis Leterrier, “Clash of the Titans” was no doubt in need of more heart and complexity, especially Worthington’s character, but I do not believe it is as egregious as everyone claims it to be. If one leaves nostalgia out the door, one can see some potential here. Although I would have loved to have seen the Kraken for more than three minutes.
Let Me In (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A man with a badly burned face had been taken to a hospital and a detective (Elias Koteas) arrived to interview him. But when the detective stepped out of the room to talk on the telephone, the person of interest jumped from a ten-story building. Cut to a lonely kid Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who was constantly bullied in school. He spent most of his time by himself as he tried to cope with his parents’ divorce. So when a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her guardian (Richard Jenkins) moved into the apartment building, naturally, Owen wanted to be friends with her unknowing of the fact that she was a vampire. “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, is very similar to Tomas Alfredson’s “Låt den rätte komma in” or “Let the Right One In.” While I did enjoy this film’s interpretation of the events, I constantly felt the need to compare it to the original. I found it difficult to separate the two because Reeves’ version did not really strive to do anything too different. From the cold locale to the grizzly murder scenes, it was just good instead of impressive because I’ve seen it all before. What I liked most about “Let Me In” was the actors. I immediately felt Smit-McPhee’s loneliness and desperation to connect with others. The scene when he called his dad to ask if evil truly existed was very sad and I just wanted to give him a hug. Moretz as the twelve-year-old vampire was accessible. I also felt her loneliness because she knew what she was and her capabilities but nobody understood her. For those who tried, such as Jenkins’ sympathetic character, they ended up getting hurt or dead. I’m giving “Let Me In” a recommendation because if I had not seen the original, I would have still enjoyed this vampire film. Its heart was always the focus instead of the blood. I always appreciate that quality especially with horror pictures because it is so much easier to deliver the violence instead of trying to explore what makes the characters tick. Further, the somber mood complemented the haunting score and vice-versa. What I felt “Let Me In” could have done was to explore Abby’s past much further. When Owen finally had a chance to enter Abby’s apartment, we saw pictures and other paraphernalia involving Abby’s mysterious past. Remaking a movie does not necessarily mean the remake should be confined to the original’s ideas. In order for the remake to be stronger, it must not be afraid to think outside the box (or even break the box) to surprise us.