Well, here’s a pleasant surprise. This week in film might not offer any timeless masterpieces, but audiences will get three strong movies, none of which deserve to be saddled with the “bad” label in my semi-amusing little weekly gimmick. There are no wince-inducing romantic comedies this week or brain dead explosion festivals based on retired toy lines. Instead, we’re treated to a creepy little horror movie, an amazing Irish cop story, and an indie comedy that’s refreshingly quirk-free.
I guess this means that blockbuster season is officially over. The fall awards season has yet to kick off, so there’s nothing stuffy, pretentious, or unjustifiably self-important either. Just three movies that want to entertain their audiences without insulting their intelligence. That’s sadly all too rare these days and frankly cause for celebration. Granted you’ll probably have to live in or around a major city to watch two of the movies on the list, but hey, it’s a start people! It’s a start
The Good: Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark
Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) has emerged not just as a master of horror over the last decade or so, but as a brand name. His fingerprints are all over Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark; however, it’s worth noting that he didn’t direct it. He wrote the script back in the '90s hoping that it would be one of his first Hollywood projects after moving from Mexico to Los Angeles, but he ended up spending a decade struggling to put the project in motion.
When he finally got a green light he was working on The Hobbit and felt that he had matured beyond the admittedly pulpy material and passed it along to comic book artist Troy Nixey to direct. Nixey does a great job orchestrating the suspense sequences and working with the actors, but the movie belongs more to Del Toro than anyone else with many of his pet themes popping up in the screenplay.
Based on a crude but effective 1970s TV movie of the same name, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is about a little girl (Bailee Madison) who moves into a spooky old mansion that her father (Guy Pearce) is renovating with his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes). She accidentally releases an army of pint-sized goblins that torment the young girl whenever the sun goes down. It’s a simple story, brilliantly executed by Del Toro and Nixey.
The movie favors suspense and shock scares over gore and is all the better for it, providing an ever-mounting sense of dread from the first frame to the last. The monsters themselves have a nice Gremlins-style combination of mischevieous humor and blood-drawing horror (with an emphasis on the latter). Del Toro’s patented theme of children using fantasy to escape harsh reality is present, but this movie is more about the surface scares than underlying themes.
This is a damn entertaining spooky house romp for those in the mood. Don’t be put off by the R rating either. There’s nothing particularly gory here, the MPAA just felt it was too intense to be less than an R for reasons best known to themselves. It’s a shame because while it’s effective enough to spook the bejesus out of all ages, the movie will probably work best as a gateway movie for young audiences discovering horror like Poltergiest. If you know a young'un who likes being scared, do the kid a favor and buy the two of you tickets for this solid scare flick.
The Bad (Cop): The Guard
Just to clarify one more time, The Guard is in no way whatsoever a bad movie. However, it’s not a good movie either it’s a GREAT movie. (Bam! Betcha didn’t see that twist coming.) The movie is sort of an Irish equivalent of Bad Lieutenant. All of the booze, drugs, and casual racism is there, but it’s somehow kind of sweet. You get the feeling that this bad cop genuinely loves life, his friends, and his mother. He just also likes drinking, prostitutes, and bad behavior. Who can blame him?
Longtime character actor Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, Gangs Of New York) plays the bad guard and his natural teddy bear quality and imposing physical presence are perfect for the role. His delightful life of misbehavior is suddenly interrupted when a dead body shows up in his small coastal town, bringing with it an international drug smuggling ring. He ends up partnered with Don Cheadle’s FBI agent from the US who he instantly offends with a racial joke. That may sound like a collection of stock crime movie clichés and in a way that’s true, but the well-worn ideas feel fresh through the cultural specificity of the screenplay.
The Guard is the writing/directing debut of John Michael McDonagh, whose brother Martin is an award-winning playwright and the writer/director of In Bruges. If you’ve seen In Bruges, you should have a rough idea of what to expect from The Guard in terms of its combination of witty dialogue and surprisingly complex characters woven into stock crime movie tropes.
The difference is that John McDonagh uses a hysterically well-observed Irish village life as the backdrop for his crime movie that takes it to a different place. Think of it as Fargo with more appealing accents. There’s really nothing bad that can said about The Guard and, god willing, it will get enough attention to be up for some screenwriting and acting awards when that time of year rolls around. It’s hard to imagine there will be many more deserving movies released this year than this and I can guarantee none of them will feature such creative and extensive uses of the c-bomb.
The Idiot Brother: Our Idiot Brother
After a summer of R-rated raunchy comedies, there’s something nice about the disarmingly sweet Our Idiot Brother. Paul Rudd stars as the titular brother who is most definitely an idiot, but one of those special movie idiots who actually solves everyone’s problems when it seems like he’s screwing up. Yeah, it’s pretty predictable and would be easy to dismiss if it weren’t so damn funny.
The movie has a ridiculous comedy cast that includes the likes of Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Zoey Deschanel, TJ Miller, and the great Steve Coogan. Director Jesse Peretz clearly let the entire cast rip with improvisations and the film has the lumpy shaggy dog structure to prove it. This is a very minor movie that is as sweet and enjoyable as a piece of birthday cake and just as easily forgotten.
It’s not something that will be remembered for long, but if you’re looking for a Sunday afternoon chuckle that will make you feel good without turning into a needlessly weepy melodrama, you could do a lot worse. I find it hard to believe that anyone could watch this without smiling at least for a little while. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Also opening this week: Colombiana (an action movie with a sexy lady kicking ass - hard to complain), Brighton Rock (a lackluster remake of a classic British crime movie), and The Family Tree (a comedy with the courage to point out that suburban life is wacky and families are dysfunctional - who knew?).