(On DVD, August 2016) I was about to watch the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street without paying homage to the 1984 original … but then common sense came back to me and I had to take a look at it. Despite the film’s flaws, I’m glad I did, because this original Nightmare has a few things that weren’t captured by the remake. Probably the most significant of them is the eerie horror of the film’s dreamlike logic: Freddy’s first confrontation alone has more disturbing imagery than the entire remake, and the roughness of the film’s execution often highlights the disarming surrealism of writer/director Wes Craven’s vision. It’s this nervous energy that runs through Nightmare on Elm Street and makes it far more memorable than many slasher horror movies of the time. In other aspects, the film doesn’t fare as well: The acting isn’t particularly good (Heather Langenkamp is disappointing as the lead, and Johnny Depp does not impress in his big-screen debut), the pacing stops and goes, the cinematography is recognizably low-budget. And that’s without mentioning the somewhat unsatisfying ending, which just throws reality and nightmares in the same dumpster, then sets fire to everything and runs around laughing. Meh. It’s worth noting, from a perspective thirty years later, that Freddy’s character in this inaugural film, even played by Robert Englund, isn’t the wisecracking chatterbox of latter films: he largely remains this implacable threat and that further distinguishes this film from latter sequels and remakes. While this original Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t, strictly speaking, an exceptional movie or even a particularly good horror movie, it does have, even today, something more than other horror movies of the time. No wonder it still endures.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) While Nicolas Cage’s stature as a dramatic actor has fallen tremendously in the past few years, it’s useful to go back to Leaving Las Vegas to remind ourselves of how good he could be when provided with a good script, an attentive director and enough opportunities to show what he could do. Here, he plays a washed-up screenwriter whose alcohol problems have led to divorce, ostracism and, in the film’s first few minutes, a self-imposed exile to Las Vegas where he intends to drink himself to death. This, as the film quickly points out, is not a matter of hours but weeks. There’s one complication in his plan: the appearance of Elizabeth Shue as an escort who finds common ground with him. Their relationship evolves into a spectacularly dysfunctional mess of co-dependency, twisted affection, impossible rules and headlong rush to self-destruction. The ending is not uplifting, but it’s entirely appropriate. Writer/director Mike Figgis (working from a novel) shoots the film using low-grain super-16 stock, lending a muddy quality to the images that works in the film’s unpolished favour. Leaving Las Vegas, given its downbeat nature and harsh scenes of humiliation and pain, is not an easy movie to love—but it’s easy to respect and it plays well even twenty years later, especially as a reminder of Nicolas Cage at the height of his dramatic capabilities. Given his propensity to take up roles in direct-to-video thrillers and the disappearance of adult thrillers from the Hollywood landscape, I don’t think we’ll ever see anything quite like this from him ever again.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2016) Netflix’s new role as an original movie distributor starts with a bang with Beasts of No Nation, an uncompromising film that not only suggests Netflix’s good eye for content, but also a willingness to support material that otherwise wouldn’t get much visibility in today’s megaplex-spectacle context. Beasts of no Nation certainly isn’t a traditional crowd pleaser: Focusing on the plight of a (very) young man recruited into an army of children during an African civil war, it’s a film that hits hard, stares where others don’t like to watch and offers no easy conclusions. Bloodshed, abuse and madness abound, while writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga doesn’t flinch in presenting his material. Beasts of No Nation benefits from a pair of exceptional performances: Abraham Attah as the young Agu, our viewpoint character, and Idris Elba as the cult-like commander of his army. The African scenery is gorgeously showcased, and the film does have a cinematic quality that may not have been expected from a streaming release. The footnote of Beast of No Nation in movie history is assured: Once Netflix picked it up and promised simultaneous availability online, most American theatre chains struck back by refusing to play it on the big screen. The joke, within a few years, will be on them. In the meantime, Netflix has done well for itself and the film by ensuring Beasts of No Nation publicity and distribution. It’s the kind of move that suggests a slightly brighter future for cinema, as more complex viewing experiences can be made viable through streaming platforms.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) For a television show adaptation that could have coasted on simply reprising the basic elements of the original, there is a whole lot more postmodernism to Bewitched than necessary … and it does help make the movie better than it should have been. Less-annoying-than-usual Will Ferrell stars as an arrogant high-profile comic actor in desperate need of a hit, accepting a lead role on a TV show based on the old Bewitched TV show. So far so good, except that the show also ends up selecting an unknown woman (Nicole Kidman) as the co-lead … unaware that she’s a witch trying to go straight. Numerous hijinks ensue, helped along by the multiple levels of fiction and wizardry. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, Bewitched does have a gentle comic quality heightened by it meta-fictional nature. Ferrell is more or less up to his own standards, but Kidman is effortlessly charming as a good witch, with Michael Caine as her disapproving father. Shirley MacLaine also shows up as a matriarch with secrets, plus Steven Colbert in an actual character role. The film itself isn’t that great, but it’s decently entertaining for what it is, and it would have been far less interesting had it not nudged, even gently, in postmodernism. As far as adapting old TV shows are concerned, I’ve seen worse.