The Strangers


The Strangers

Liv Tyler is upset because housekeeping hasn’t finished her room yet.

(2008) Thriller (Rogue) Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Jordan Del Spina. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

Simple is better. When in doubt, stick to the basics – these things are true for just about everything, including filmmaking. Some of the most effective movies are the least complex.

James Hoyt (Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Tyler) are driving on a dark road late one night. They are returning from a wedding reception and the drive is made in silence. James had proposed to Kristen and she’d said no, she wasn’t ready for marriage. They are staying at his father’s farmhouse, and an awkward evening it’s going to be. He’s very hurt and she feels…well, it’s hard to describe.

Once at the house things are decidedly strange between them but it’s going to get stranger. He goes out for a pack of smokes. There is a knock at the door; a young woman looking for someone named Tamara. There’s no Tamara there, but the young woman insists.

Soon there are mysterious figures in masks lurking in the shadows. Strange noises in the night. James comes back and at first thinks his girlfriend is being paranoid. Then he begins to hear the noises, see the figures. Soon the stakes go up and the couple realize that this isn’t a prank – they are indeed fighting for their lives.

And that’s it. That’s all the plot there is, and really all the plot you need. This gives the movie everything it needs to become a horror classic which it had every opportunity to be. It claims to be based on actual events, although which events seem to be subject to debate; the writer/director says that he experienced the late-night knock on the door but the events that followed thereafter are pure invention.

However, the writer, Bryan Bertino, had no experience as a director (he had been a grip on a different movie). He may have been ambitious enough to submit this for a project to Rogue, but he commits the cardinal sin as a director – he gives the ending away; we know who is going to survive and who isn’t. In order to make the movie worthwhile, we need to get to know the characters, feel their pain and terror. Sadly, this doesn’t happen and it’s just a matter of an hour and change of waiting for the movie to end.

Tyler and Speedman are both fine actors, Tyler in particular. She’s certainly easy on the eyes but she’s not what you’d call a typical scream queen. Still, she doesn’t  do badly here; however she isn’t given a whole lot to work with. I wish she’d have had more; an actress with her skills could have really made this movie soar. As it is, she gives it a shot in the arm that it needs. Speedman has a more sympathetic character in many ways but at the end of the day we don’t know enough about him to really invest ourselves in him.

What I do like is that the main characters panic. They don’t act with cool, calm reserve and show hidden martial arts skills – neither of them are former Army Rangers or MMA fighters. They are two ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people who are stalking them are doing what they do without rhyme or reason. We never learn why they decided to inflict the terror and pain on this couple; the only explanation we receive, late in the film, is that “you were home.”

There is no point here. There’s no grand moral lesson to be learned other than that bad things happen. Most of us are well-acquainted with that lesson in any case. I do like that Bertino and cinematographer Peter Sova make the proceedings sufficiently tense and scary enough to keep our interest for the 86 minutes (88 minutes on the unrated version) that the movie runs. Sadly, the ending is so disappointed (and the rumor is that the studio had a hand in messing with the ending) that we feel that we went through that length of time terrified for no good reason. And terror for it’s own sake really doesn’t do it for me.

WHY RENT THIS: The tension is well-established. Tyler does as good a job as any.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We fail to care enough about these characters to connect. Ending is given away at the beginning, turning this into torture porn. The ending is disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the film, “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard is played several times. Haggard’s backing band for the song was called The Strangers.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $82.4M on a $9M production budget; the movie is considered a blockbuster based on its box office to production cost ratio.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vacancy

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Paper Man

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Love Ranch


Love Ranch

Joe Pesci is thrilled to find out that Helen Mirren loves the smell of a good cigar.

(2010) Drama (Entertainment One) Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, Bai Ling, Elise Neal, Bryan Cranston, Rick Gomez, M.C. Gainey, Gil Birmingham, Emily Rios, Melora Walters, Harve Presnell. Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

Some stories are just not destined to have happy endings. They are simply put, train wrecks just waiting to happen. Even those intimately involved know that things are going to end badly.

Charlie Bontempo (Pesci) has what most would call the good life. He owns one of the first legal brothels in the United States which gives him a lot of sexual outlets, as well as being married to Sally (Mirren) who runs the business end of things. However Charlie loves the flamboyant lifestyle of the bright lights of Reno – big cigars, expensive cars, imported champagne – a lifestyle not really supported by what he’s bringing in on the “ranch” which is really a bunch of trailers surrounding an old hotel-like building. It’s a bit flea-bitten, but it’s home.

Charlie needs to bring more income in and he thinks he has the way to do that; by managing a promising Argentine boxer named Armando Bruza (Peris-Mencheta). Unfortunately, Charlie can’t get a manager’s license in Nevada because he’s a convicted felon. Therefore he persuades Sally to take on the job of managing and training Armando.

Sally is initially less than enthusiastic about the prospects of being a boxing manager. She knows very little about the sport and she would much rather be tending to the family business. But as she gets to know Armando, she finds that he is falling hard for her. At first it’s amusing, then it’s annoying – she’s a goodly number of years older than he. However, he reawakens in her that has been killed by the years of Charlie’s philandering and taking her for granted and she falls hard for Armando.

This doesn’t sit well with Charlie, needless to say and he tries to reclaim the relationship with his wife but as she rightly reckons, it’s hard to tell if Charlie really wants her back because he loves her or more because he can’t stand losing what’s his. Things begin to spiral out of control and as we mentioned earlier, everyone knows this isn’t going to end well.

This is loosely based on the story of the Mustang Ranch, owned by Joe and Sally Conforte whose love triangle with Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena ended as depicted here. Director Taylor Hackford is not one of my favorite directors; while some of his films have been passable (Against All Odds, Everybody’s All-American) most have been just plain awful with one exception – Ray.

This was his first movie since directing the Oscar-winning musical biopic and it only took six years for it to hit the multiplex – softly. There was definitely some interference in the making of the final product; more than hour of footage was left on the cutting room floor, much of it having to do with character development.  As a result beyond the ill-fated love triangle none of the characters have much personality going for them.

It goes without saying that Mirren is one of the finest living actresses; she can be icy cold or red hot or anywhere in between. Here she needs to be the former most of the time while showing signs of the latter. Her desperation and frustration clearly show through – she can more than hold her own with the flamboyant Charlie – but there is a very wounded, vulnerable core here and Mirren nails it. Whatever is wrong with this movie, it isn’t Helen Mirren.

It isn’t Joe Pesci either. Yeah, there are those who it could be said were breaking the balls of this movie because Pesci was playing a flamboyant Italian criminal as he did in Goodfellas and other movies he’s been in. Well, the guy who the part was based on was a flamboyant Italian criminal; I don’t blame the casting director one bit for going after the best in the world for that kind of role. In all honesty, it was marvelous seeing him back in the kind of part that he made famous. I am not ashamed to say that I’m one of the guy’s biggest fans and even though I tend to prefer him in comedies, I am happy to see him in anything.

Despite their chemistry and their talent, Pesci and Mirren aren’t enough to save a movie that plods through a plot that is remarkably un-sexy despite being set in a whorehouse. The emphasis is put on the love triangle which is fine – that is the crux of the story after all, but given the rich location and the possibilities for drama, why skimp on that side of it? Also some of the dialogue is a bit klunky. There are times the actors look a little embarrassed that they’re saying it…at least it appears that way to me.

I don’t know if Hackford had gotten his way that this would have been a better movie. It certainly would have been a longer one. The story would be a compelling one if only they had let it breathe a little bit. Unfortunately, it feels like there were too many fingers in the pie and when that happens, all you can taste in the pie is the fingers.

WHY RENT THIS: Pesci and Mirren make for a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: For a film set at a brothel there is remarkably little about the hookers who live there.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, a lot of foul language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mirren and Hackford are married in real life; they previously collaborated on the dance film White Nights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are pretty standard on any home video release, there are more than an hour’s worth here which Hackford had to trim in order to get the movie to a place the distributors felt comfortable with. Many of them have to do with the hookers who are nearly completely absent  from the final release version. You can watch them all here with or without commentary from Hackford.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137,885 on a $25M production budget; not the kind of numbers a film wants to have in its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:As Good As Dead