(France/US - 2013)
MANIAC (1980) is so representative of both '80s splatter and the grimy NYC sleaze of its era that a present-day remake seems like a hapless, watered-down proposition from the get-go. Written and produced by Alexandre Aja and directed by Aja protégé Franck Khalfoun (P2), the 2013 version of MANIAC doesn't top Lustig's original, but it at least tries to be its own film and shows an obvious affinity for its source. Moving the setting from NYC to some of the seedier parts of downtown Los Angeles doesn't really replicate that scuzzy feeling, but it sort-of suffices, as homicidal Frank (Elijah Wood in the iconic Joe Spinell role) slices and dices his way through a bevy of beautiful women he meets on dating sites, scalping them to adorn the mannequins in the fly-infested apartment behind his restoration shop. Frank is dealing with unresolved mother issues, having endured a traumatic childhood that saw him witnessing Mom (America Olivo) abusing drugs and sleeping with numerous random men (the shot of her snorting coke while screwing two guys and catching young Frank watching her as she whispers "Mommy loves you" is undeniably haunting). Frank meets French photographer Anna (Nora Arzeneder), whose specialty is, conveniently enough, mannequins (which seems like an easy way for her to overlook Frank's bizarre demeanor and his creepy collection; in a way, it's just as implausible as the schlubby, greasy Spinell attracting the attention of someone like Caroline Munro in the original), and, of course, becomes fixated on her.
The biggest change this new film makes is shooting it almost entirely from Frank's POV. Wood primarily turns up as reflections in mirrors and windows, except for a few times when Khalfoun inexplicably bungles it and swings the camera around to show Frank actually killing people. The POV is a nice touch, so it doesn't make sense and it's completely intrusive when Khalfoun breaks it, and it seems to have been done only to give Wood more screen time as he'd otherwise barely be visible. Still, as far as remakes go, MANIAC '13 isn't bad, however unnecessary it may be. The makeup effects by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger are a nice mix of CGI and practical, with the blood looking appropriately wet and the flesh moist instead of completely cartoonish and badly-digitized. When he sticks to the Frank POV, Khalfoun stages some nicely-done murder sequences, particularly the first one with the way the knife enters the frame. Frank, who suffers from migraines, is also frequently sickened by his actions, which gives Khalfoun a good excuse for a suitably gross POV puking shot into a toilet. I guess if MANIAC had to be remade, this turned out as good as it could've turned out, and the music score by "Rob" is a standout. Face it, this could've just as easily been a neutered, PG-13, in-name-only revamp instead of the unrated gorefest that it is. It's an admirable effort, better than anything with the name "Alexandre Aja" attached to it should be, and Wood gives it his all, but when I feel like watching MANIAC, I'm going with Joe Spinell. (Unrated, 89 mins, also streaming on Netflix)
(Canada - 2013)
I'm a sucker for a good cold, snowy, icy horror flick, but THE COLONY fails to take its place aside such iconic titles as THE SHINING or either version of THE THING. It isn't even in the same league as WHITEOUT or the recent prequel THE THING. At least WHITEOUT went to the trouble of CGI-ing some visible breath for the actors in the exterior scenes. The interiors of the closed-up NORAD facility make a good location, but THE COLONY falls apart whenever anyone walks outside. Everything is unconvincingly green-screened and cartoonishly CGI'd. You never feel for one moment that these actors are out in the elements and not in a comfortable, climate-controlled studio standing in front of a screen. The best kind of CGI is the kind that doesn't call attention to itself, and the CGI here is basically wearing a bright, flashing neon sign. And once the cannibals make their way to the colony, the whole thing becomes yet another John Carpenter-styled siege scenario and a sort-of ASSAULT ON COLONY 7. The film is directed by Jeff Renfroe, who primarily works in TV these days but previously made a pair of interesting and little-seen indies: 2004's Euro-dystopian PARANOIA 1.0 has Jeremy Sisto as a computer programmer who starts cracking up when mysterious packages keep appearing at his door, and 2007's CIVIC DUTY stars Peter Krause in an intense performance as a laid-off accountant with nothing but time on his hands, spending his days watching cable news and becoming increasingly obsessed with his new neighbor--a Muslim grad student--and convincing himself that the guy is a terrorist. Both of these films have a powerful sense of paranoia and claustrophobia that would seem to be ideal for THE COLONY, but the artifice of the whole production design just keeps you at a distance. While the film works best when it stays indoors, it has nothing unique or substantive to offer, doesn't even make any valid points on an environmental level, and exists only to provide easy paychecks for Fishburne and Paxton. It took four screenwriters to come up with this? (R, 94 mins)
(US - 2013)
ANOTHER EARTH (directed by Mike Cahill) and 2012's SOUND OF MY VOICE (directed by Zal Batmanglij). Marling and Batmanglij team up again with THE EAST, which finds the creative pair getting a sizable budget boost courtesy of A-list producers Ridley Scott and Michael Costigan, and falling flat on their faces, with a story that travels a path that's too structurally similar to SOUND OF MY VOICE. And where VOICE and ANOTHER EARTH were science fiction stories that could explain away some of the more outlandish plot elements, Marling seems to struggle when the plot is based in the real world and without a fantastic angle. Marling stars as Sarah, a former FBI agent who lands a gig at a private company specializing in corporate espionage. Her boss (Patricia Clarkson), hired by big money clients, assigns her to infiltrate The East, a domestic eco-terrorism outfit that's been targeting CEOs and various corporate big shots with such acts as flooding an oil honcho's house with crude after his company causes a massive oil spill. In the first of many embarrassingly simplistic developments straight out of Plot Convenience Playhouse, it takes Sarah about a day to get into The East's inner circle, which she manages to accomplish via Craigslist and hanging out with some acoustic guitar-strumming hippies on the shore. Of course she finds herself drawn to their charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and comes to agree with The East's philosophies and practices (at times, with their straitjacket dinners and off-kilter rounds of Spin the Bottle--"May I hug you for one minute?"--they seem more like a cult), taking part in their projects (called "jams"), and her happy life with her nice but boring boyfriend (Jason Ritter) falls apart as she ignores her boss' most vital piece of advice: "Do not get soft."
Marling seems to have gotten soft with THE EAST. Even with the formulaic plotting, it still could've been a solid, entertaining thriller. But with the soapboxing (Sarah becomes a dumpster-diving freegan simply because Marling did that for a while as well) and the fact that, as a writer, the proselytizing Marling stacks the deck in The East's favor, even when they're crossing lines and doing some very bad things (like poisoning the board of directors of a pharmaceutical company), it's hard to really accept a lot of what transpires. Look, I hate the sociopathic, profit-above-all mentality of these companies as well, but two wrongs don't make a right, and The East aren't meant to be idealized. This should be a film with no heroes. Explore that. Explore the inner conflict instead of having Sarah merrily abandon everything. Or at least have her abandon everything in a realistic fashion. The idea that the driven, ambitious Sarah is willing to drop her promising career, devoted boyfriend, and happy life in general to fall in with The East as quickly as she does is a metamorphosis that serves the filmmakers' agenda rather than the story. The character arc is never believable for a second, and the third-act twist with the reveal of The East's final "jam" is only a surprise if you've never seen a movie before. There are a few good scenes--fanatical East member Izzy (Ellen Page) forcing her chemical company CEO dad (Jamey Sheridan) and a company spokesperson to jump in toxic, polluted water is a memorable moment--and the potential was there for a good thriller, but Marling and Batmanglij can't stop shouting "MESSAGE!" long enough to focus on what's important. Much like SOUND OF MY VOICE, THE EAST deals with an outsider infiltrating a secret organization (in SOUND, Marling played a manipulative cult leader who claimed to be from the future), but a bigger budget doesn't mean a better movie. ANOTHER EARTH and SOUND OF MY VOICE were both original, intricate, and thought-provoking puzzles that established Marling as a major new indie talent both as an actress and a writer. The studio-backed THE EAST, on the other hand, is clichéd, trite, and just plain dumb. Welcome to Hollywood. This is a rare case where you wish the suits would've intervened and taken the movie away from its makers. (PG-13, 116 mins)