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

Melancholia


 

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst is sinking fast.

(2011) Science Fiction (Magnolia) Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr. Directed by Lars von Trier

It is not often you root for the end of the world at a movie.

Lars von Trier is a Danish director of some renown who is known for movies with remarkable imagery and an artistic aesthetic. His films sharply divide audiences; some proclaim that he is a genius, others a charlatan. Critics tends to moon over him like a lovesick teenager.

I try to take each film as it comes to me, and not review the filmmaker so much as his work. I will say this; I’m not the sort of person Lars von Trier makes movies for. It’s not that I have a problem with trying to make something that is art; I respect any attempt to do so and encourage it. There is room in the world for all sorts of palettes.

But then there is Art. The kind of thing that is created by people who think Art is above everything, who deliberately try to shock and disturb not so much to make a point or even force the viewer to confront their own viewpoints but simply to grab attention. I view this with the same affection I have for a child screaming at the top of their lungs in an inappropriate setting; the message that is being sent is “Look at me! Look at me!”

The film here is divided into two parts, preceded by a prologue of images that essentially tell you the story in a series of slow-moving interactive pictures many of which appear on the trailer. The first part is entitled Justine and is about the character of the same name. Justine (Dunst) is a brand new bride who is at her wedding reception at the home of her super-wealthy brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who is married to her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).

Among the wedding guests are Justine’s parents, Dexter (Hurt) and Gaby (Rampling) – who along with Claire have British accents, something Justine doesn’t have – and who don’t get along at all. Dexter is a bit of a womanizer and Gaby somewhat bitchy. Also there is Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who is also her husband Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) best man. Jack is tightly focused on getting a tag-line for an advertisement Justine has been working on and sends Tim (Corbet) to get it.

It turns out Justine has some psychological problems, ranging from clinical depression to possibly bipolar disorder and like her mom she’s also a bit of a bitch. She manages to alienate nearly everyone at the wedding. For the viewer, it’s like being at a party that gets more and more awkward to attend. Da Queen was urging me to leave the party but like witnessing a train wreck, I felt compelled to see what the damage would wind up being.

The second part is entitled Claire and shows her, John and their son Leo (Spurr) coping with the sudden appearance of Justine some time after the wedding. She is pale, nearly inert and looked for all the world like an addict coming down from a major bender. The atmosphere is tense with John fed up with Justine’s antics and Claire trying to appeal to her sister in some way.

Hanging over all of this, literally, is planet Melancholia, a gigantic rock that suddenly appeared from behind the sun and is threatening to collide with Earth. While John insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, Justine seems convinced that the Earth is doomed. She knows things, after all.

Having a character “know things” is a bit of a cop out. It’s lazy writing. I will grant you that Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here, gives a brave performance, having to urinate in her bridal gown on a golf course, portray a character who isn’t very likable at times and turns up stark naked and sexually aroused at the sight of the approaching planet.

I suppose there are metaphors here and I suppose that I’m not getting them. For me, this was an excruciating two hours that seemed a pointless exercise in making pretty images, which I grant you were in some cases breathtaking, gallery worthy. However, the movie did nothing for me but leave me with an angry wife who demanded an explanation as to why I’d dragged her to the Enzian to see this.

Again, I don’t have a beef with trying to create a work of art. But there’s art and then there’s Art. The difference is that the former is a communication between the artist and the audience, a point that is being made or some insight imparted. The latter is an exercise in self-indulgence.

I have written a review that could easily have been condensed to two words, but I’m making a point. All of these words I’m putting to page are extraneous and ultimately superfluous. They are unnecessary wastes of time for you, the reader for which I apologize. All of the review you need to read is this: Fuck Art.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty images and Dunst makes a brave effort.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Pretentious, overbearing, badly written, aggravating, awkward – it’s just a mess masquerading as art.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sex and implied masturbation, as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The above image, used in the movie’s poster and briefly seen in the prologue, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia.

HOME OR THEATER: Don’t do it. For the love of God, don’t do it.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

TOMORROW: Winnie the Pooh