MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Please Give and Harry Brown…

A Nightmare on Elm Street (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Samuel Bayer, 2010

Twenty-six years ago, I walked into the only theater that ever stood on the very same block where I lived — the Vogue in Los Angeles on Hollywood Boulevard between La Brea and Cherokee — and got the living, screaming Hell scared out of me, by a new movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street. This 1984 Wes Craven horror super-shocker, about a grinning school janitor with a hideously burned face named Freddy Krueger, who wore a tacky striped sweater, a dirty fedora and steel-claw fingernails — a wise-cracking homicidal maniac who ran amok in the dreams of the local high-schoolers, taunting and killing them in both fantasy and reality. The movie was so murderously effective, I was almost afraid to walk home. And home was only a block away.

I still think that first Nightmare has one of the great horror movie premises ever: a killer who looks like an evil clown, haunts everyone’s dreams at will, can’t be caught and takes obscene, hilarious relish in all his murders. A monster who lives in your dreams and is always there, ready to slash. You can keep away from the haunted mansion and the Bates Motel. You can lock the doors on Halloween, maybe avoid maniacs, fly away from the Living Dead and even elude the Terminator. Maybe. But how can you stop yourself from falling asleep? And meeting Freddy?

Now, decades later, there have been eight more trips to Elm Street, and any teenager who goes anywhere near that tree-lined block, probably belongs in a padded cell — where they will almost certainly fall asleep and find Freddy waiting for them. The cheerfully murderous Mr. Krueger, played by genial Robert Englund, has ripped of so many nasty quips and killed so many promising young actors, including Johnny Depp, that he probably qualifies as an honorary Hollywood producer or talent manager. But, of those eight other trips, only the 1987 Nightmare 3, and the other one directed by Craven — 1994‘s Wes Craven‘s New Nightmare — were worth a damn.

Now comes the lavishly budgeted modern remake that, as with other recent atrocities like the new Last House on the Left and the new Friday the Thirteenth, bids to re-start the whole nightmare cycle all over again: a super production with lots of splatter but without Craven, without Englund, without Depp, without Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Chuck Fleischer and all the rest of the gallery of the nightmare-ridden and slashed — and most importantly, without shame. This movie isn’t even worth half a damn.

Co-written without inspiration by Wesley Strick (of the Scorsese Cape Fear), half-stylishly directed by Samuel Bayer (of numerous rock videos), and with Jackie Earle Haley bravely replacing the seemingly irreplaceable Englund, the new A Nightmare of Elm Street purports to tell us what really happened way back when, to fill in the complete backstory that sent Freddy off on those endless bloody rampages.

SPOILER ALERT

It seems that Freddy is a friendly pedophile with an unquenchable lech for comely young artist Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara), that he was burned alive by a mob of angry parents led by Clancy Brown as Alan Smith (ee?), that Smith‘s boy Quentin (Kyle Gallner) also has the hots for Nancy, that the two of them plan to foil Freddy by half-falling asleep in his old haunts (fat chance, suckers), and that Freddy probably gained entry into everybody’s nightmares because of his passion for the Everly Brothers‘ ‘50s ballad All I Have to Do is Dream, which, played under the credits, provides this movie‘s unquestioned high point. (But where is Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover? Or Mama Cass‘s Dream a Little Dream of Me?)

END OF SPOILER

Now that you know the awful truth, you are spared the necessity of seeing this awful movie, and New Line has been spared the horrific duty of preparing eight more horrendous sequels. Poor Robert Englund has been spared the torment of watching Jackie Earle Haley scratching his steel claw fingernails against blackboards, furnaces, bedroom walls and nubile flesh — those fingernails, that flesh, that should be his! (Why couldn’t Englund be granted at least a cameo here? Playing, say, the high school psychiatrist?)

As for Haley, a fine actor who, in this movie, lacks Englund‘s gusto, he can now return to more plausible perversions in artier films like Little Children, and be forever spared the chore of showing up at shopping malls and fan conventions in his striped sweater, cackling “Hey! I’ll take a stab at this!” and dipping his fore-fingernail into inkwells for autographs.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is slick but empty, flashy but familiar, bloody but bowed. I wasn’t scared walking out of it this time. I should have been scared, walking in.

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Please Give (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Nicole Holofcener, 2010

In the smart but somewhat off-putting comedy Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener tackles an offbeat, half-promising subject: a group of upscale Manhattanites who feel guilty about having it so good, or feel miffed because they don’t have it even better.

I can laugh, but I can’t commiserate. (It’s clear that Holofcener wants us to do both.) Many people have it so much worse than the self-absorbed but somewhat off-putting middle-class city-dwellers we see here that it‘s hard to feel sympathy for them — the couple played by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt who buy bargain furniture at rock bottom prices from bereaved relatives at estate sales and resell it at their pricy “antique” store (and who are waiting for the 91-year-old neighbor to die so they can take over her apartment); that same old lady’s gorgeous mean granddaughter (Amanda Peet), a facial cosmetician who makes fun of her grandma, trashes or condescends to everybody else, seduces Platt’s Alex and stalks the new girlfriend of her ex; the couple’s overweight, zit-faced daughter (Sarah Steele), who keeps throwing snit-fits and demanding attention, and thinks a pair of 200 dollar designer jeans will solve all her problems; the antique shop’s gullible sucker-sellers and customers; and, unhappily enough, even the 91-year-old neighbor lady (Ann Guilbert), unappreciative of the daily efforts of her one good, helpful granddaughter (Rebecca Hall), and insulting and irascible toward everyone else.

You know what? The hell with these people. They should feel guilty.

The problem here is that most of them apparently don’t — except for Keener’s Kate, remorseful because she and her hubby are exploiting misery, who therefore runs around trying to volunteer at various local community organizations (but finds they depress her too much), and dispenses twenty-dollar bills to homeless panhandlers (to the film‘s, but not my, amusement), mistakenly showering some of her largesse on a restaurant patron waiting on the sidewalk just because he’s black. Kate’s behavior may be foolish, excessive and misdirected. But the impulse is justified. Come to think of it, old neighbor lady Andra’s misanthropy may be justified too.

Of course, if I’m reacting this way, this personally, it’s because Holofcener and her cast have drawn these characters so fully and well, that they’ve taken on some life of their own, and become capable of being morally measured or judged. Kate is foolishly good, just as Alex is roguishly but entertainingly bad. She’s an idealist who suffers at the thought that they may be profiting from pain. He’s a realist who to some degree, accepts pain and cheating as part of life, and thinks that a good joke can always straighten things out — but, in the end, is more affected by Kate’s idealism, maybe wants to be the husband she probably deserves.

Keener and Platt play this pair with enough casual naturalism (Platt) or wounded sensitivity (Keener) that we can relate to their basically unlikable lot. As for their daughter Abby, Sarah Steele plays her observantly and utterly without any actor’s vanity — though the last familial love scene between loving Mom, penitent Pop and jeans-crazy Daughter made me cringe.

More moral measurement. Rebecca, the empathetic radio technology tech who administers mammograms, and cheerfully visits Andra, even when she gets nothing but sourpuss cracks in return, is clearly a relatively good, caring person. And her sister Mary, who does facials at a spa, is clearly a relatively bad, selfish one — though Holofcener eventually showers generosity on them both. Is this the “Everyone has their reasons” grand compassion of a Jean Renoir? It often seems closer to the “Let’s all get along” tolerance of the average family diplomat.

It’s suggestive that several of the film’s critics, describing these two sisters, have called Mary a beauty and Rebecca a “plain jane.” Yet how could a stunner like Rebecca Hall, even without a stylish get-up or make-up, possibly be described as plain? Is it because we’re conditioned to find snappish, cruel, well-dressed, smart-asses like Mary as sexy? And people like Rebecca as schnooks and doormats? Is it because too many of us would rather be Marys than be Rebeccas, even if Mary is a shit? I ask; I do not know.

Ann Guilbert as Andra has potentially the best role in the movie, and she plays it with just the right weariness and droll bite. But she’s been cheated — and so are we — by the fact that Holofcener writes this role so darkly and basically unsympathetically, because the filmmaker so strenuously tries to avoid the obvious sentimentality we’d feel toward an elderly woman in what are probably her last days.

At one point, when Kate, Alex, Mary, Rebecca and Andra all get together, Mary starts talking about Andra and the disposition of her apartment after she’s dead, as if Andra weren’t even there. I was reminded of the memorably callous treatment of the children toward their economically strapped parents in Leo McCarey‘s poignant/funny masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow — a movie that would probably inspire Kate to tears, Alex to irony, Mary to contempt/discomfort and Rebecca to thoughtfulness — and a film that Holofcener should definitely make a point of watching some day, if she hasn‘t already.

There’s actually great potential in that Please Give get-together scene — if only Holofcener would grant Andra, amid her acerbic complaints, moments of more sympathy, lightness, connection, humanity. But she doesn’t. And it’s hard to understand why. The press book tells us that Please Give is based on real life, on a real old lady and her younger neighbors/landlords, who all became friends. Friends? Did reality seem too sappy for a biting Manhattan comedy about guilt and privilege?

Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing), who makes dryly funny, compassionate, realistic, verbally agile comedies with an urban setting, once worked for Woody Allen (on Hannah and Her Sisters) and she’s clearly mining his territory, though with less wit and style. Please Give is a pretty good movie, and a notably well-acted one. But it’s been somewhat over-praised by some Manhattanphile critics, who perhaps recognize the characters too quickly as part of their own milieu, or the milieu they want to be near.

I confess I’d like Please Give a lot better if the pathos were deeper, and/or the jokes funnier. After all, Alex has a point. So does Kate. So does Rebecca. So does Mary and even pimply daughter Abby. So does Andra, God bless her. As Renoir said, “Tout le monde a ses raisons.” And as Woody Allen said, “I can’t keep up that level of charm. I’d have a heart attack.”

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Harry Brown (Two and a Half Stars)
U.K.; Daniel Barber, 2009

Harry Brown gives Michael Caine an old lion star role that’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s old-tough-guy Walt in Gran Torino. And Caine does a great job with it, playing — with unflappable cool, commanding presence, a touch of sadness and carefully tamped-in rage — an elderly but still dangerous ex-military guy who becomes a free-lance vigilante when confronted with the savage gang violence in his deteriorating London neighborhood.

This is Caine in his element. The star of many top British and American noirs, from The Ipcress File to Get Carter, The Italian Job, Mona Lisa, Blood and Wine, and two Sleuths, he’s unerringly on-the-money, all the way to his last dark shot — though the movie, I think, starts going over the top midway through, and never quite recovers.

A shame, because up to the moment when, for me Harry Brown lost its footing — in the overwrought and over-designed evil-smack-dealer scene that damages the movie’s up-to-then canny mix of realism and heroic fantasy — I was having a fine time. Harry Brown has the mark of Caine, and Caine still has the Maltese Falcon-ish stuff that dreams are made of.

When I first saw him as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File in 1965, I thought he was too insolent — and of course, I was reacting to the character and his Cockney jabs, rather than the actor. (Alfie wised me up and turned me around.) Bogart was insolent too, and Bogart, with his cynical-idealistic world-weary stare, knowing violence and punchy cracks, is the actor whom Caine often most suggests, despite the British actor’s blue-eyed, curly-haired, semi-pretty boy looks.

His Harry Brown is an unabashed revenge fantasy, and mostly a good one. Caine‘s Harry is triggered into deadly action when his old chess buddy Leonard (David Bradley) is killed by the local youth gangs, and he begins mopping them bloodily up, while a local cop, Alice Frampton (John Mortimer’s daughter Emily), increasingly suspects him, and the whole seedy area begins to explode. Not too original. But it’s done with style and the right chilly mood by commercial specialist and first-time director Daniel Barber). And it has despicable villains, and a top-notch dark-side-of-the-street hero in Caine‘s Harry.

Actually, as I get older myself, I find I like revenge fantasies, especially when they have unlikely or seemingly vulnerable heroes or heroines like Harry, Walt or Hit Girl and Kick-Ass (directed by Harry Brown producer Matthew Vaughn). Caine’s Harry, like Clint’s, can go here outside the law, to our temporary delight. But the last half of Harry Brown takes too sharp a turn — for me at least — toward the over-familiar and over-scaled, toward the nutso cliché-clogged flights of those super-slick higher-budgeted revenge thrillers that aren’t lucky enough to have a Harry like Caine’s, doing his stuff in a setting that, at least at first, suggests the horror of the everyday.

– Michael Wilmington
April 29, 2010

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