Monday, July 5, 2010

Notes From a Critic at Large (Part One)

Ever since “losing” my job as a freelance film critic for Metro Newspaper last fall, I’ve spent very little time going out to movies. Whereas in the past thirty years, as a professional critic, I used to see about three films a week, I’ve been lucky to see three movies in a theatre in the last five months. I’ve simply lost the heart for it. But I’ve also been seeing signs that films aren’t getting any better, either.

Looking at Russell Crowe’s grim, purposeful expression on the billboards for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, the movie seemed to be issuing a threat rather than enticing audiences to see it. Besides, I had already seen that glum look of Crowe’s way back in Ridley Scott’s equally dour Gladiator (2000). (On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed watching Crowe in Scott’s inconsequential, but lovely 2006 comedy, A Good Year, which most people had ignored, or dismissed.) Witnessing the collection of stooges (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider) on posters for Grown Ups, the film seemed to be arrogantly daring you to defy its potential stupidity. (Stupid can be fun when it’s smart stupid. Dumb stupid, on the other hand, is always a drag.)

Lately, I’ve been working on my new book and catching up with reading, music and some films that were gathering dust at the foot of my television. Movies I’ve caught up with on television have been largely stupefying. Law Abiding Citizen, for instance, is one of the most incoherent thrillers I’ve seen in years. Clyde Shelton (Gerald Butler) witnesses his wife raped and his daughter killed in a home invasion. During the trial, Philadelphia prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) tells him that one of the two criminals will get a light conviction due to botched forensic evidence. Rice ultimately makes a deal with the most brutal of the offenders (the guy who did the raping and killing), so that they can fry his accomplice. Shelton feels betrayed and ultimately gets revenge on the killers, the prosecutor and the whole damn city of Philadelphia. Director F. Gary Gray (2003's The Italian Job) starts out by staging scenes more outlandish than Michael Winner’s ugly vigilante fantasy Death Wish (1974), but he realizes (soon enough) that, with the popularity of torture porn in mainstream horror pictures (Saw, Hostel, etc.), he better turn Shelton into Dexter. As a result, Shelton only mutilates those he finds responsible for heinous crimes. But in order to explain how Shelton is able to continue wreaking havoc, even while in prison, Gray (and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) concoct a ridiculous subplot about Shelton having connections to black ops in the CIA. (Apparently, his black ops training enabled Shelton to dig tunnels between his solitary cell and a garage he happened to own nearby thus allowing him to prowl the city unnoticed.) While a number of good actors (Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb) try to save face by gamely following the dots in the story, the charmless Gerard Butler can do nothing to cover the preposterousness of the avenging father.

Speaking of avenging fathers, the remake of the sly and entertaining 1987 thriller The Stepfather, is as about as doltish as Law Abiding Citizen. The original picture, directed by Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape), from a clever screenplay by crime writer Donald Westlake, was a shrewd satire of Reagan-era American family values. It featured a serial killer ( a pre-Lost Terry O’Quinn) who marries into families with a single mother and then attempts to shape the clan into his idea of family virtue based on the old TV shows of the fifties like Father Knows Best. When they can’t match up to his idea of perfection, he butchers them all, changes his identity, and moves onto the next family. The original film essentially put a human face on the mass murderer after the numerous versions of Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street presented young audiences with boogie men out of fairy tales. O’Quinn, who was then a character actor who prior to this played forgettable folks in mostly best-forgotten films, was perfectly cast as a man who blended in so effortlessly; he was the everyman as psycho killer. O’Quinn possessed in perfect proportions the bland shadings of a Ted Bundy. The young audience I first saw The Stepfather with were more deeply frightened by this portrait of evil than the standard murderer in the goalie mask – and for good reason. The guy in the goalie mask is unrecognizable; O’Quinn could be the dad next door, or possibly even your own.

The new version, directed by Nelson McCormick, abandons the sharply drawn subtext of the original. Although Dylan Walsh doesn’t wear a mask, or have razors for fingernails, he might as well. The Stepfather (2009) has no psychological resonance at all or any purpose beyond recycling tired horror clich├ęs seen in dozens of other pictures. Whereas the first film had the stepfather marry into a family with a daughter who had issues when her father died, the new film introduces a number of kids including a son who has just returned from military school to discover his mother happily in love with this “perfect” man. But there is no intent behind all this other than to have the family slowly – and I mean slowly – come to recognize that he’s not the guy they think he is. But what kind of guy is he? Dylan Walsh sure doesn’t illuminate the character beyond what the screenplay (with poorly adapted lines from the original) tells him. Terry O’Quinn let you see the spaces between his carefully placed mask which were like holes in his consciousness. Walsh is nothing but holes.

The 1987 version was abandoned upon release and became more of an underground hit that spawned a couple of bummer sequels. But the 2009 The Stepfather is a slap in the face to the original. Joseph Ruben etched a portrait of subterranean madness that uncovered the phony moralism of contemporary suspense movies. (Sexually active teens in most horror films get murdered while the virgin triumphs over the monster.) But the re-make resembles an attempt to take the discomfiting material and make it into something more palatable: a standard genre movie. Luckily, it didn't succeed. The Stepfather redux turned out to be as faceless as its protagonist.

Tomorrow, a forgotten picture that's worth seeing.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

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