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

Restrepo


Restrepo

A soldier during one of the quieter moments of Restrepo.

(2010) Documentary (National Geographic) Dan Kearney, Brendan O’Byrne, Joshua McDonough, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, Stephen Gillespie, Aron Hijar, Angel Toves, Tanner Sichter, Miguel Cortes, Misha Pemble-Belkin, Sterling Jones, LaMonta Caldwell. Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

For 15 months in 2007 and 2008, the men of the second platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade were stationed in what CNN called the most dangerous place on Earth – the Korengal Valley, a desolate and arid place in Afghanistan which is apparently riddled with Taliban insurgents. They were accompanied by author Sebastian Junger and veteran combat photographer Tim Hetherington, who captured their ordeal with over 150 hours of footage, augmented with interviews taken after the soldiers had returned home.

We never see the filmmakers nor do we hear their voices. There is no narration, no music. Simply the words of the soldiers themselves, the sound of gunfire and the occasional lowing of cows and shrieking of howler monkeys and that’s enough.

They are surrounded by 10,000 foot mountains in a valley that is like shooting fish in a barrel, as one soldier comments – except that they’re the fish. They live in an outpost that offers barely enough shelter and is named for one of their number who dies early in their deployment – and is seen at the beginning and end of the film clowning with his buddies on the flight to Afghanistan. His inclusion is a poignant reminder of the true cost of war.

The soldiers are led by Captain Dan Kearney, an earnest and committed young man who has weekly meetings with the local elders in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the community. It is often frustrating for him, wondering if he’s making any headway with them.

War has been described as days of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror and you get that sense with firefights erupting seemingly out of thin air. The tension that the men feel is palpable, especially during an exercise called Operation Rock Avalanche in which the men go from village to village looking for Taliban fighters, one muttering as they enter a bucolic meadow that they are sitting ducks.

The filmmakers wisely avoid showing the bloodier side of the business; they respect the soldiers too much for that. The soldiers that don’t make it through die off-camera, the pain of their passing shown by the reactions of their comrades. The filmmakers also don’t comment on the political nature of the war; they don’t take sides – rather they just present the daily lives of those fighting the conflict which winds up making a more powerful statement than they might have in foisting their opinions on us verbally.

The men of the platoon (and they are all men) are not adrenaline junkies or hotheads as sometimes soldiers are depicted to be; they are thoughtful and responsible, doing a job that is nearly impossible (in fact, the U.S. pulled out its troops from the area in April 2010). If these are the young people serving our country, then we should be doubly proud of them and the tragedy of losing such people is even more poignant.

It is also necessary to report that co-director Hetherington passed away earlier this year in Libya when the unit he was covering came under fire. It seems that the nature of war is to wipe out the resources of good men and women who deserve a long, productive life, a life taken away from them – and from us as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A harrowing and gritty look at the sacrifices our men and women in the armed forces make.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is what you’d expect from soldiers under fire, and there is some wartime violence depicted as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Junger wrote ”The Perfect Storm” which was later turned into a movie with George Clooney.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are updates on the soldiers written by the men themselves. There are also some promos on various veteran assistance programs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie broke even or maybe even made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Snakes on a Plane


Snakes on a Plane

Rachel Blanchard reacts to the news that she's been cast in Snakes on a Plane.

(New Line) Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, David Koechner, Bobby Cannavale, Todd Louiso, Byron Lawson, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Keith “Blackman” Dallas, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Sunny Mabrey, Terry Chen, Emily Holmes. Directed by David Ellis.

I’ve got two words for ya – guilty pleasure. That’s all you need know about Snakes On a Plane. The internet buzz on this was incredible as fans or would-be fans design trailers, posters and merchandise in perhaps the most interactive marketing campaign in the history of movies. All the hype has really kind of obscured the fact that there is a movie behind it.

Young Hawaiian surfer dude Sean (Phillips) has witnessed a murder and not just any murder. He watched crime boss Eddie Kim (Lawson) use a baseball bat to bludgeon the district attorney that is prosecuting his case. You know that’s gonna leave a mark.

Unfortunately, Fast Eddie and his generic thugs realize that there was a witness and go to do unpleasant things to him. However, he is saved by the unfortunately-named FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson), a curmudgeonly all-business kind of guy. Hey, if I was named Nelville Flynn I’d probably be in a perpetually bad mood too. Nelville convinces Sean to fly back to Los Angeles from Hawaii to testify against Kim and put him away for good.

However, the nefarious crime lord has arranged a little surprise. He has managed to smuggle a load of poisonous snakes into the cargo hold of the flight that the FBI agent and his witness are taking, and not even ordinary poisonous snakes. No, he has arranged for the deadliest snakes from around the world to be the special guests aboard the flight (but he’s so cheap he makes them fly coach). These are the exotic snakes for which the anti-venom is terribly rare and hard to find in the States.

Basically that’s all the plot you need to know. The rest of the movie is made up of the terrified passengers and crew trying to keep the plane aloft while they get snakes attacking any and every orifice on the human body, not to mention every bit of genitalia they can find. Admittedly most of the human cast members are walking, talking cliches – the plucky stewardess (Margulies), the spoiled rich girl (Blanchard), the quirky rapper (Alexander) and his bodyguards – the big one (Dallas) and the video game-obsessed one (Thompson). Then there’s the matronly mentor stewardess (Shaye), the effeminate steward (James), the oversexed nymphet (Holmes), the slimy co-pilot (Koechner), the kick-ass FBI agent (Cannavale) and the nerdy snake expert (Louiso). The fun comes in trying to figure out which ones will still be vertical at the end of the movie.

Don’t think too hard about anything onscreen or your head will just explode, and who wants to see blood and grey matter on the couch? This is all concept and no plot, and logic takes a backseat to pacing. Once the snakes get loose, it’s a rollercoaster and the best thing to do is just sit back, enjoy the ride and ask no questions. How did Nelville know to rescue Sean at his apartment when he hadn’t reported the murder to the police? Don’t even think about it. You can feel the C-4 in your head beginning to burst if you do.

This is Jackson’s movie to carry and he does so with panache. He does the movie straight which is actually a good thing. Too much of that grin and wink stuff and the movie turns into self-parody and suffers because of it. Instead, he’s just serious enough to keep the movie in the realm of semi-serious. Most of the humor comes in the over-the-top approach the filmmakers and effects crew take. Why film a dozen snakes when you can film 450, and why have snakes chow down on human adults when they can swallow them whole. Are you questioning it? I can smell the smoke coming out of your ears all the way from here. Not worth it man. Just go with it.

This is pure empty-headed fun, the kind of thing that you watch, enjoy and forget about 15 minutes later. There was never a possibility of any Oscars for Snakes on a Plane unless they started handing them out for marketing campaigns, which they didn’t, but that’s okay by me. This is the kind of summer movie fun that wears it’s intentions on its sleeves and let’s face it; there is nothing wrong with a bit of harmless brainless visceral pleasure.

WHY RENT THIS: Pure empty-headed fun that never tries to reach beyond it’s grasp. Perhaps the walking talking poster boy for guilty pleasures. This is the ultimate Samuel L. Jackson movie with his ultimate line – “Get those motherbleepin’ snakes off my motherbleepin’ plane!”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Anyone who requires a dose of logic with their plot will find themselves banging their heads against the living room wall after seeing this.

FAMILY VALUES: To put it succinctly, no family has these kinds of values but let’s face it – it’s all in fun. Older teens will think it a bit dated (despite only being four years old) but enjoyable; just about anyone younger than that will have nightmares over the snakes, the drug use, the language, the sex, the violence and the acting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title originated at an after-work get-together at a local watering hole by several studio employees who played a game where each tried to come up with the worst possible pitch; the winner was Craig Berenson, who then worked at DreamWorks and eventually served as producer on the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Some of the fan films that helped fan the initial internet hype are included here.  There is also a gag reel, a music video of Cobra Starship’s title song and a making-of featurette of the music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $33M production budget; the film broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Wendy and Lucy