(On Cable TV, August 2016) Watching this A Nightmare on Elm Street remake so close to seeing the original is an exercise in comparing different film eras. The eighties were marked by rapid experimentation, at the frequent expense of polish or logic. The Teens, especially at the Hollywood studio level, are about crass commercialism, storytelling templates and visual slickness, even if the result often feels as if it comes off an assembly chain. In A Nightmare on Elm Street’s case, there’s also twenty-five years of accumulated fannish expectations regarding Freddy Krueger, who’s been featured in five sequels, one crossover, videogames, comics, Halloween costumes and enough merchandizing to make anyone wonder why we’re cheering for a serial child killer. Thankfully, the remake goes easy on the homages: While this new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street keeps more or less the same structure as the original and doesn’t dare deviate from its iconography, it’s also relaxed about doing its own thing. The acting is much better (Jackie Earle Haley is fine as Krueger, while it’s a surprise to find Rooney Mara in a pre-stardom role here), and so is the cinematography. The progress in special effects technology means that the remake is far more visually cohesive than the original. There is a pretty good sequence, for instance, in which action in a small supermarket seamlessly shift into a boiler-room nightmare and that’s the kind of intricately controlled special effect set-piece that the 1984 low-budget film couldn’t even aspire to execute. On the other hand, this reliance on digital wizardry means that this remake looks far more deliberate and restrained than the original. Everything from director Samuel Bayer seems planned, with few surprises or genuinely upsetting visions along the way. (This being said, I’m more annoyed than I expected at the last gory death of the film.) While this A Nightmare on Elm Street does stand on its own as an average horror movie, it does pale in comparison to the loopy terrors of its inspiration. Even five years after the remake, it seems clear that the 1984 original will be remembered for far longer.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Let me tell you how little I cared about Carol: After renting it via video on-demand, I fell asleep midway through and didn’t come back to it before its 48-hour availability period expired. Six months later, I happened to catch its second half on Cable TV just to say I’d seen it to the end. To be fair, it’s a good film. Competently directed by Todd Haynes, it convincingly re-creates wintry 1950s New York in presenting the then-scandalous love affair between a high-class wife and a humble shopgirl/photographer. Strikingly enough, Carol manages to avoid the aren’t-we-better-now back-patting, or the tragic-forbidden-romance angle in which so many historical same-sex romances run aground. Even though it features stars such as the always-exceptional Cate Blanchett and It Girl Rooney Mara, it doesn’t shy away from explicit love scenes. As such, it’s a quiet triumph. Still, movie viewers with shorter attention spans will fiddle a long time while the film glacially moves through its story, rarely surprising or exciting. While there’s a bit of a thriller-ish subplot later on, Carol otherwise behaves almost exactly as it would have had it been put together in the 1950s. It would, of course, have been far more scandalous then, but that’s sort of the point of the film. I don’t think Carol will mind all that much if it leaves me cold: other reviewers have liked it a lot more than I did, and that’s good enough—it’s a big movie universe, and there’s a place for everything.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Director Steven Soderbergh often has very different goals in mind than what the average moviegoer would prefer, but occasionally his artistic impulses align with his target audience and the result can be spectacular. Side Effects may exhibit much of Soderbergh’s usual tics, but it also features his technical proficiency and his ability to play with audience expectations. Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t start out promisingly: As a troubled young woman murders her husband and everyone suspects that her medications are to blame, it’s easy to feel let down by yet another basic anti-pharma diatribe; surely Soderbergh wouldn’t steep to something so basic? But then Side Effects becomes a much more unpredictable film, and we understand why the project attracted the director. It ends up being a fine psychological thriller, shot with Soderbergh’s typical drab pseudo-realism but in increasingly compelling fashion. The film switches protagonists midway through, Rooney Mara’s mopey performance receding in order to favour Jude Law’s increasingly tortured psychologist. (Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones has another small but effective supporting role –she’s been doing a lot of those lately.) A clever script, coupled with capable direction, makes for an effective thriller. Side Effects is easily one of the strongest films of 2013 so far, and it’s a remarkable testimony to Soderbergh’s skills once he sets out to deliver a crowd-pleaser.