Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Don't Breathe

Don't Breathe is a curious entry in the thriller genre because it really plays with the audience's allegiance in terms of which characters we're rooting for. It shifted for me a couple times throughout the film. Regardless, this is one effective white knuckle thriller.

Rocky (played by Jane Levy) is so desperate to leave her toxic and abusive home where she lives with her Mom, her mom's terrible boyfriend and her daughter, that she has resorted to robbing houses with her criminal boyfriend Money (played by Daniel Zovatto) and friend Alex (played by Dylan Minnette), who is secretly in love with Rocky. Alex's dad works for a security company and the three use that connection to gain keys and security codes to access other's houses. Money gets a tip that there is an old guy (played by Stephen Lang) who lives alone in an otherwise deserted neighborhood who rumor has it is sitting on at least $300,000. Seeing a quick ticket out of town, Rocky agrees to take part in the robbery. Alex is harder to convince but eventually agrees. While staking out the house, they discover the man is blind. That night, they break into the house through the only window without bars and set about trying to find the blind man's loot. Shortly after they break in, the man awakens and discovers them, or at least one of them since he is unsure how many there are. This begins a game of cat and mouse between the Blind Man and the three intruders as they try to get out of the house while eluding the Blind Man and in the process, discovers he has some deep, dark secrets of his own. 

Director Fede Alvarez, who also wrote the film with Rodo Sayagues, strikes a surprising level of moral ambiguity for the film. All through it, I found myself questioning who I should be rooting for in this scenario. The film manages to create some sympathy for Rocky, who is doing the robberies to make some quick cash to leave town with her younger sister, as well as Alex who is conflicted about doing these robberies as well, but goes through it out of his love and loyalty for Rocky. Money, on the other hand might as well have dead meat tattooed on his forehead. But at the same time, the Blind Man (that's literally how he's referred to in the movie, he doesn't even have a name), lives alone mourning the death of his daughter and is also sympathetic at least for the first third of the movie anyway. Then there is a shocking revelation and then another shocking revelation that makes it clear that the Blind Man is even worse than the people who are robbing him. In retrospect, I feel like the filmmakers went a bit too far with that in painting the Blind Man as a monster. I wish they had left it a bit more even and made the audience question themselves and let the characters exist in more of a morally gray area for the entire film.

Stephen Lang gives a stellar performance as the Blind Man, giving both an emotional weight to the part as well as being physically intimidating as a man who is quite resourceful and frightening despite not being able to see. Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette were also quite good in their roles. Despite myself, I did want to see Rocky get out of the house if for no other reason than the sake of her younger sister. Dylan Minnette also managed to evoke a lot as Alex, who it is clear is only a part of this because he loves Rocky and I did worry about their safety as the movie went on, even though I knew I shouldn't have. They brought this on themselves and broke the law. But yet, in the end I found myself rooting for them to get out of the house and that really started to mess with my head and idea of moral code. They're robbers, breaking into the house of a as far as they know innocent, blind man and this movie is making my sympathize and worry about them. In that regard, well done filmmakers and actors.  

I previously mentioned in my Wait Until Dark review that the premise of this movie reminded me of that one. I will admit the premise is similar in the sense that three intruders invade the home of a blind person to steal something. In Wait Until Dark it was a doll stuffed with heroin. In this film it's $300,000 in cash. However, aside from that basic plot outline and that at one point both blind people turn off all the lights to even the playing field, the films have a lot of differences as well. In fact, this film is almost the inverse, with the Blind Man being the villain and the robbers being the heroes, in a twisted way. 

Overall, Don't Breathe was a very effective thriller that has a twisty-turny plot that left me questioning who I should be rooting for several times throughout the film, with each new twist changing it. As I was leaving the theatre, one of the other audience members asked me, "So, were they the good guys or the bad guys?"

"I don't know, I'm still trying to figure that out myself," I responded as we walked out of the theatre. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Wait Until Dark

When I first saw the trailer for the new thriller Don't Breathe, there was something that felt really familiar about it to me. It soon dawned on me that the film was a variation on the classic Audrey Hepburn thriller, Wait Until Dark, with a few alterations. Basically they made the three intruders a bit more sympathetic and the blind person a bit less sympathetic, but aside from that the set up is very similar. I thought it might be fun to compare the two. 

Susy Hendrix (played by Audrey Hepburn) is a blind woman who lives in a New York apartment with her photographer husband Sam (played by Efram Zimbalist Jr.). Despite her blindness, she is rather self-reliant and is able to get around both her apartment and neighborhood rather well. Sam has just returned from a business trip and was given a doll by a strange woman to carry in the airport under the guise that she was bringing it home for one of her daughters who was in the hospital and didn't want her other daughter to see it and planned to retrieve it later, but when they are separated Sam winds up taking it home with him. In the shuffle of unpacking, it gets lost in the apartment and both he and Suzy forget about it and when the woman calls Sam about the doll, he can't remember where it is. Two con men, Mike and Carlino (played by Richard Crenna and Jack Weston), show up at the apartment a couple days later along with another man, Harry Roat (played by Alan Arkin), with the objective of retrieving the doll. It turns out the doll was not a gift but rather stuffed full of heroin. Initially, they try to con Suzy into giving up the doll with Mike posing as an old college friend of Sam's, Carlino as a policeman and Roat poses as an old man and then his son. However, things take a darker turn when Suzy suspects their ruse and with the help of her upstairs neighbor, Gloria (played by Julie Herrod) confirms her suspicions. From there she needs to use every ounce of cunning she has to try and outwit the three strangers until help can arrive. 

Like most thrillers, this one probably doesn't stand up to a lot of scrutiny in terms of Suzy's actions throughout the film. But the strength of the performances, especially by Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, carry us through the film. Suzy is probably a bit too trusting, especially for a New Yorker, but Hepburn makes it work by portraying Suzy as a warm but smart and capable woman. Her trusting nature is her flaw though and she doesn't realize the danger she's truly in until it's much too late. Arkin's performance as Harry Roat is one of the all time great movie villains. There is just something that is very unsettling about that character and Arkin plays him wonderfully. He's completely in control, smart and very dangerous. Suzy and Roat going head to head provides much of the movies suspense in the final act of the film.  

The film was directed by Terence Young and written by Robert Carrington and Jane Howard-Carrington, based on the stage play by Frederick Knott. The film at times does feel a bit stagey, since the bulk of the film takes place in that one apartment, but Terence Young is able to change up the shots and break away from the apartment set enough so that feeling doesn't overwhelm the film. Young also does a great job of slowly ratcheting up the suspense in the film from the beginning all the way to the heart stopping finale. 

Overall, Wait Until Dark has earned it's place as a classic thriller with two great performances anchoring the film. I originally checked out the film many years back because the premise intrigued me and I was a fan of both Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. Knowing Alan Arkin mostly from his comedic roles, such as The In-Laws, seeing him play such a sadistic villain as Roat was an eye opener. It's a fantastic little thriller that I wholeheartedly recommend.   

Friday, August 12, 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016)

Normally, I've very vocally against remakes. They tend to just copy what came before but like a copy just isn't as good as the original. But every once and awhile, there will come one that takes the same premise, but rebuilds the film from the ground up and at the same time strengthens and improves on what came before. Pete's Dragon, without a doubt, is one of those exceptions. 

Pete (played by Oakes Fegley) is an orphaned boy who lives deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest with only the companionship of a large, friendly dragon he named Elliott, who saved Pete when he was the lone survivor of a bad car crash that killed his parents. He is discovered by a Park Ranger, Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who is overseeing logging in the area by a company owned by her boyfriend Jack (played by Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (played by Karl Urban). She and Jack take him back to town, shocked that a young boy could survive so long in the woods while apparently being alone. Elliott is distraught when he finds Pete missing and while searching, Gavin catches sight of him and goes hunting for him in the woods with some of the other loggers. 

Meanwhile, Grace talks with Pete, wanting to know more about where he came from and how he was able to survive on his own for so long. Pete tells her about Elliott and shows her a drawing. She recognizes it immediately as matching the dragon her father (played by Robert Redford) used to tell her stories about (and stories he continues to tell the neighborhood kids). When she matches the drawing Pete made to ones her father made years earlier she realizes that the tales both her father and Pete have been telling may be true after all. Around this same time, Gavin and the hunters discover Elliott. After initially being scared off by Elliott, Gavin begins to scheme to capture dragon for himself. 

This new rendition of Pete's Dragon was directed by David Lowery, who also co-wrote the film with Toby Halbrooks. They took the basic premise of the original film and carefully updated it with style, intelligence and a lot of heart, crafting a set of three dimensional and fully formed characters as well. The cinematography was fantastic and may well be the best looking family film I've seen since The Black Stallion. There were shots that literally took my breath away. I also have to single out the musical score by Daniel Hart, which complimented the film quite well and I found myself really digging it and how it strengthened the film. 

They managed to assemble a great cast, with Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban all doing solid work. Oakes Fegley as Pete is quite a find, acting wonderfully alongside the CGI dragon. The effects work is top notch as well as they created the utterly convincing and endearing title character that not even once had me thinking I'm looking at a CGI creation, which is high praise indeed. The design of Elliott is quite unique and is the most adorable dragon this side of Falkor from The NeverEnding Story. The design choices make sense since Elliott's type of dragon is indiginous to Northern parts of the U.S and Canada (if not further north), so given that climate it makes sense he would be fuzzy. 

Overall, the new version of Pete's Dragon is a definite improvement on the original, with a reworked and stronger story backed by great performances and some stellar effects work supporting the story of a boy and his loyal and protective dragon. I sat there in the dark, popcorn in hand, tears of joy welling up in my eyes and a big dopey grin on my face as this fantastic and heartwarming film unfolded before me. There's some real magic here. 

Pete's Dragon (1977)

It's been at least a good twenty or so years since I last saw Pete's Dragon, but it was a film I certainly held some fond memories of from my childhood as it had been a favorite of both mine and my brother's as kids. With the new remake coming out this weekend, I found myself with an overwhelming urge to revisit the film and see if it still held up. Riding a heavy, heavy wave of nostalgia, I did enjoy rewatching it but at the same time wondering if an adult who hadn't seen it as a kid would enjoy it as much.

In early 1900's New England, a young boy named Pete (played by Sean Marshall) is on the run from a hillbilly family named The Gogans, led by matriarch Lena (played by Shelley Winters) to whom he was sold to as essentially a child slave. He has escaped with the help of a dragon, Elliot, who can turn invisible, but when he's visible is an adorable 2-d animated creation of Don Bluth. Pete and Elliot are able to avoid the pursuing Grogan clan of dimwits and stumble across the small New England fishing village of Passamaquaddy. After an invisible Elliot unwittingly causes some chaos around town and is briefly spotted by the local Lighthouse keeper Lampie (played by Mickey Rooney), Pete and Elliot retreat to a local cave off the beach by the Lighthouse. There, Pete is discovered by Lampie's daughter, Nora (played by Helen Reddy). She takes him in and although she doesn't believe his stories of a dragon, she plays along. Soon after, a snake oil salesman, Dr. Terminus (played by Jim Dale) and his assistant Hoagy (played by Red Buttons), arrive in town. Catching wind that there is a dragon and discovering all the supposed medicinal purposes that dragons carry, the two conspire to catch Elliott for themselves. When the Gogans also hit town, Dr. Terminus and Hoagy team up with them, with the intention of using Pete as bait to capture Elliott. 

Pete's Dragon was another in a line of movies Disney made in an attempt to recapture the magic of Mary Poppins. The thing with this particular film is when you really start looking at it, it's a strange duck of a film. On one hand, it fits in with Disney's usual brand of peppy, golly gee whiz musicals that they got really good at making and at the same time it's dealing with some really dark subject matter, in particular Pete's past (it's made blatantly clear he was abused severely by the Gogans) as well as Lampie's alcoholism, which is mostly played for laughs. Both Elliott and Nora's fierce protectiveness of Pete from the Gogan's does provide a lot of heart to the film though. It's just narratively the two different sides don't mesh together all that well. The songs in the film, by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, are reasonably good with the Oscar Nominated "Candle on the Water" being the clear stand out.

The effects really have not aged that well, but were probably impressive for their time. Still, Don Bluth's animation on Elliot is incredibly expressive and does a great job in creating an endearing character that still held up for me watching it again all these years later, as long as you can get on board with an animated dragon interacting with live action characters. The human performances do vary a bit. Both Sean Marshall and Helen Reddy do quite well in their roles. Everyone else on the other hand are quite over the top, mugging left, right and center. This is to be expected from Mickey Rooney, for whom it was a bit of a trademark, but even he is doing it more than usual. I didn't mind it, exactly, but I can see how it would get old fast for contemporary audiences. 

Overall, I had a fun time revisiting this childhood favorite. I got chills as songs I had long forgotten about began, especially "Brazzle Dazzle Day" or "It's Not Easy", and seeing the film from beginning to end as memories of watching it as a kid came flooding back. Would someone who never saw it as a kid enjoy it as much as I did? If the YouTube video by Cinema Sins, "Everything Wrong With Pete's Dragon" is anything to go by, then no, probably not.