STRAW DOGS (2011)

September 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen Sam Peckinpah‘s classic 1971 original with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, it is impossible to watch this remake without comparing the two films. Because of that, these comments will include some comparative notes. After all, it’s been 40 years and most people watching this new version have never seen the original, though I highly recommend it.

Director Rod Lurie follows the Peckinpah version pretty closely with the obvious changes being a move from the English countryside to the deep south (Mississippi), and the main characters are now a screenwriter and actress instead of mathematical whiz and … well, whatever Susan George’s character was in the original. Those are the obvious changes, but not the most significant. I really missed the subtlety and psychological trickery delivered by Peckinpah, especially in the relationship between David and Amy.

 Lurie chooses to take advantage of the physical screen presence of Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) as Charlie, the local stud and Amy’s ex. Charlie’s past exploits on the football field and his creepy leadership skills with his posse of thugs, provide the yin of physical strength to the yang of David’s intelligence. It’s interesting to note that this version spells out Sun-Tzu’s description of “straw dogs” while Peckinpah left his audience to fend for themselves. But, of course, what the story boils down to is just how far can a civilized person be pushed … and how far is the bully willing to go?

 James Woods is a welcome and terrifying addition to the new version. Since it is based in the small town south, high school football must play a role. Woods is the former high school coach who is now a violent drunk, and still leader of his former players. He is a sadistic type who picks on Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), the slow-witted brother of Daniel (Walton Goggins) and constantly accuses him of inappropriate behavior with his 15 year old cheerleader daughter.

 James Marsden (Hairspray) and Kate Bosworth (Remember the Titans) play David and Amy. They come back to Amy’s childhood home so she can rest and David can have some peace and quiet while writing his screenplay on the Battle of Stalingrad. Well, we couldn’t really have him writing a rom-com, could we? From Day One, the peace and quiet is clearly missing and Lynyrd Skynyrd wins out over Bach in the battle of radio volume. Tension builds and David is tested daily over what it means to be a man … tested by the local hicks and doubted by his lovely wife.

Things turn from bad to worse when the locals invite David to go hunting with them. What happens with Charlie and Amy during this time changes everything. This sequence was the key to the controversy of the original and what caused it to be banned in many cities and countries. Lurie chooses to handle it in a very straightforward manner – plus, times and mores have changed quite a bit in the last 40 years.

For me, the Peckinpah original remains a classic film with brilliant psychological undertones which left me feeling very uncomfortable and questioning what I might do in this situation. Lurie’s new version offered little of that but does work fine as a straightforward suspenseful thriller.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to compare original vs. remake OR you want to see a very creative use of a bear trap OR you want a close up view up Kate Bosworth’s heterochromia (one brown eye and one blue)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are devotee to Peckinpah’s version OR you prefer your thrillers have little violence

watch the trailer:


COWBOYS & ALIENS

July 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With such a wonderful title, creative concept, stellar cast, the director (Jon Favreau) of Iron Man and Elf, and the collision of two distinct film genres – Westerns and Sci-Fi, we had every right to expect cinematic genius. Instead we get OK, just fine, and kind of entertaining. I believe that qualifies as a letdown.

My view of the film is that the western/cowboy portion is outstanding. The setting and characters are realistic and intriguing. Heck, there is steely-eyed  Daniel Craig as the outlaw Jake Lonergan; grumpy Harrison Ford as Col. Dolarhyde who runs the town with iron fist; loony tunes Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s son who is itching for respect; bespectacled Sam Rockwell as a barkeep called Doc; porcelain Olivia Wilde as the not-from-around-here beauty whose presence no one seems to question; and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff trying to do the right thing. We even have the obligatory kid (Noah Ringer from The Last Airbender) and a loyal dog.

 The weakness of the film is with the aliens. Many have said the film would be better without the aliens. Well, wouldn’t that make the title a bit ridiculous? We just needed BETTER aliens. These aliens are smart enough for intergalactic travel but they can’t outsmart a bunch of rustlers? And how many times did they capture Daniel Craig just to have him escape? Not to mention that their power seems to come from gold … and there is a shortage on their planet and ours! The beginning of the film is really, really good. It’s 1837 and Lonergan wakes up in the middle of nowhere, just outside the unfriendly town of Absolution. He is wearing a metallic bracelet/shackle around his wrist and no memory of who he is or where he came from. Although there are some terrific scenes, the film kind of drifts downhill after that.

 All I will say about the story is that the aliens attack Absolution by kidnapping a few residents and stealing gold. The cowboys fight back with six shooters, Lonergan’s bracelet, Wilde’s knowledge, and some help from the Indians.

What really bothers me about this one is that it should have been so much FUN! Instead, it’s mostly bleak with only a few comic lines tossed in. My guess is having NINE writers associated with the film was a real problem. Each of the characters holds some interest, but the story just kind of meanders with little direction.

 A couple of minor irritants for me: Lonergan wakes up and mugs three crusty old cowboys and winds up with perfectly tailored chaps, pants, shirt and vest; Olivia Wilde wears the same dress all the time but never really gets dirty; the cowboys shoot the aliens with guns, arrows and spears – sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t; and supposedly the aliens don’t see well in daylight. Tell that to the numerous cowboys and Indians who get slaughtered in the climatic battle. Lastly, Olivia Wilde’s character is the only one of her type. Where were her fellow “countrymen” to assist on her mission?

As I said, the cast is spectacular. It’s always nice to see Buck Taylor in a western. Clancy Brown plays the preacher. You will remember him as the prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption. Mr. Brown maintains his top position as the largest cranium of all actors. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) plays one of Lonergan’s old gang, and brings a touch of humor. And the fiddler is played by first time actor Rex Rideout. Nothing to say about that other than congrats on a terrific screen name!

The film is entertaining, but just falls short of what could have been, even what should have been. Watching Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford match wits in the old west is almost enough!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Daniel Craig in chaps and Harrison Ford in full curmudgeon glory are enough to justify the price of a ticket

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think it will be as much fun as the title suggests

Watch the trailer:


PREDATORS (2010)

July 10, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the 1987 original film directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard) and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, you couldn’t help but be a bit excited about this new one since Robert Rodriguez is involved. What a letdown.  It plays more like an episode of Lost, or even The Twilight Zone.

With films from Mr. Rodriguez, we have always been able to count on creativity, ingenuity, humor and excitement. This one lacks all. Now to be fair, the director is actually Nimrod Antal, whose resume includes Armored and Vacancy, both of which are as empty as this one.  But Mr. Rodriguez was very involved in the details.

Of course when your cast is minus Arnold, you start with a major handicap. When you replace him with Adrien Brody, you appear to be aiming for disappointment. Sure Mr. Brody did a few sit-ups to prep for this role, but he is no action hero, regardless of how he mimics the Christian Bale Batman voice in order to seem tough.

The rest of the bad luck cast of characters is rounded out by Laurence Fishbourne, Alice Braga, the great Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez staple), Topher Grace and Walton Goggins (so great as Boyd Crowder in Justified, TV’s best new series this past season). Just to add to the misery, the film score is simplistic and a bit of a joke itself. It certainly misses the excellent work of Alan Silvestri from the first film.

Not much need to discuss the lack of any real new material here. The bad guys are pretty much the same. The weapons are pretty much the same.  The cast and script are weaker. The real money with this one lies in a “making of” documentary in which the first “pitch” meeting takes place and the producers are presented with the idea to make a thrilling new action movie … a new Predator movie … starring … Adrien Brody and Topher Grace!