Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie Reviews-Straw Dogs (2011), Fright Night(2011) and more

Straw Dogs(2011)
This remake tells the story of a man , David (James Marsden) and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) who move to Amy's culturally distinct Mississippi home town-Blackwater. (Shades of backwater or Blackwater Group??) David is a screenwriter and Amy is an actress. David is writing a book on the 1943 battle of Stalingrad.

Like its 1971 predecessor, Rod Lurie's remake poses some questions.

What does it mean to be a man? Can you change a tire? Re-roof a house?  Break down and clean a firearm? Overhaul a transmission? Do you even know the proper color of your car's transmission fluid?  Put up a fence? Kill an animal? Stand up for yourself? Fix your refrigerator coils? Physically intimidate other men? Enjoy or perform physically violent sports? Speak directly and with bass/baritone in your voice? Bench press multiples of your body weight? Are you a good partner for your wife/girlfriend/friend with benefits? Can she rely on you for protection?

David can't do any of these things. This almost immediately invites the contempt of the town's workers, including his wife's ex-boyfriend. This being the South though their contempt is initially expressed under a thin veneer of excessive politeness, deference and blink-and-you'll-miss-it-sarcasm. When David tells Charlie that Charlie and his crew are taking too long to re-roof the barn, Charlie replies with seeming actual kindness and curiosity "How long, in your experience, should it take to re-roof a barn, sir?".
The story is roughly faithful to the 1971 version discussed here with a few changes.
As I suspected, the portions of Peckinpah film which so troubled some viewers, especially feminists, have been toned down or removed altogether. Amy is still provocative in her dress (going braless for a lengthy run and later deliberately flashing the workers) but this is explicitly tied up with some sort of grrlpower activism. The infamous rape scene still occurs but it is clearly depicted as rape-there is NO enjoyment or ambiguity expressed. It can not possibly be thought of as crude seduction. When the couple is besieged David does not slap his hysterical wife and tell her to do as she's told. These changes probably make the film a bit more palatable to modern filmgoers but they do rob the movie of the shock value and intensity that the original had. Lurie said “I think you will see that one of the reasons for remaking was to turn it into a feminist film.” He may have succeeded in that goal but it wasn't needed. The film is thus deliberately neutered. 
Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) is more of an eye candy object than Amy is in this film. In addition, the remake removes the slight tension between Amy and David. We never get the feeling that she thinks she settled, which was rather important to the events. There isn't a real hint of Amy's revolt against David's prissiness and peculiarities. 

In the original David was more or less clueless to the cultural norms of the small English village he was visiting. In this film he is still clueless but is willing to at least try to adapt. This makes him a more sympathetic protagonist while more openly painting his tormentors as stereotypical good old boy bullies. 
The movie's irony is that both David and Charlie react to what they think each other's stereotypes are and then in seeming self-defense, become those stereotypes. Under different circumstances the self-described "rednecks" might actually have been interested in the minutiae of World War Two battles while David could have learned to enjoy high calorie down home chili and the rhythmic cadence of a Southern preacher. Marsden is not as slight or nebbishy as Hoffman so the ending violence lacks the original's surprise. 

Word to the wise: the best time to handle problems is when they start. If a strange man who you later find out is your wife's ex walks up to her, ignores you and calls her by an obviously sexual diminutive while trying to play with her hair, you might as well shoot him right then and there. Start as you mean to finish I always say. Save yourself some time and hassle. If this film's story interests you, just see the original instead. James Woods and Dominic Purcell also have roles.

Fright Night (2011)
Another remake, this movie tells the story of a vampire living (and feasting) in suburbia.
Like Straw Dogs this version makes some important changes to the storyline but unlike Straw Dogs these changes actually work. I wouldn't say it was better than the original just different. Financially however, this film was pretty much a flop. 

The primary difference is that the hero Charley Brewster, (Anton Yelchin) a former geek who is transforming into one of the cool kids, discovers VERY early on that his next door neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. The film's most impressive scene has Charley realize this fact when Jerry -who is unable to enter a home without invitation-does his best to manipulate Charley into inviting him in. The slight Farrell does a bang up job of conveying menace and increasing frustration while Yelchin shows growing panic that there is a monster on the other side of the doorstep. This movie also precisely captures the sad emptiness of some of these semi-rural suburban subdivisions. 
Unfortunately I guess when you show all the goods early there's no excitement left.  This film had no tease. Perhaps it's because modern viewers have such short attention spans?
The film has some great special effects but there just wasn't enough fright or humor to have made this worthwhile for a theater viewing. It may find a second life on VOD and DVD. Who knows.
The vampire hunter Peter Vincent (David Tennant) is reimagined as a somewhat fey Las Vegas magician. Toni Collette, Sandra Vergara,  and Imogen Poots also star. Chris Sarandon (the vampire in the original version) has a cameo.

Brotherhood of the Wolf
For fans of the fine feminine form of Monica Bellucci this French film is worth watching for her alone. For everyone else this isn't a bad little adventure/drama/mystery/period flick that is chock full of court intrigues, duels, forbidden romance, sexual perversion, murders, supernatural(?) events and martial arts-18th century style.

This kitchen sink approach would normally make a movie feel ridiculous but I think it worked for this film. The cinematography of the film is quite close to Blade 2 or even The Matrix, with similar action sequences and lighting. The film has lots of blue or dark scenes occasionally transposed with lighter more upbeat ones. This film won a host of awards and was financially successful in the US as well, no small feat for a subtitled movie with a running length of over 2 hours. The film hit the sweet spot of being able to appeal to both men and women, drama fans and action fans, conspiracy theorists and romance junkies, film snobs and people that just want to escape reality for a while. And the costumes weren't bad either. The film is based on (really more extrapolated from) real events.

The opening story is that a French knight , Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Iroquois partner Mani (Mark Dacascos) return to France from North America in order to hunt and kill a strange beast that is terrorizing the countryside. They also intend to enjoy the favors of the sort of women that aren't found in North America. Fronsac in particular is something of a player and almost immediately takes up with the mysterious Italian prostitute Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) while simultaneously romancing a local young noblewoman Marianne (Emile Dequenne). Mani knows kung-fu and is something of a a$$-kicker. Like the Starks in A Game of Thrones, Mani has a wolf as his totem animal and is virtually psychically linked with wolves. And he doesn't think the beast doing the killing is a wolf.
This beast seems to primarily attack and kill young girls. Fronsac and Mani find this strange to say the least. Additionally the footprints and bite marks of the beast are much larger and more powerful than any wolf. Some witnesses have sworn the beast was controlled by an evil wizard. The killings have become so common that people are attempting to use them as a religious symbol that God has withdrawn his favor from the French king. So the pressure is on Fronsac and Mani to solve this case FAST. They are overseen and occasionally mocked by the one armed Jean-Francois (Mr. Monica Bellucci aka Vincent Cassel), Marianne's brother, who seems to know more about the beast's behavior than he should. And the plot thickens from there. I don't want to say more because that would involve spoilers. I'll just say that this was a very satisfying film. Check it out.

Final Destination 5
This sequel closes the loop and does so in some pretty ingenious ways. If you've never seen any of the Final Destination movies I won't say you've missed a whole lot. It's basically an upscale Faces of Death. The storyline is always the same. One member of a group of attractive well scrubbed ethnically diverse youths has a premonition of impending death, freaks out and convinces some of his/her friends to get off the plane/bus/train/rollercoaster/ship or whatever they are on. The friends do so reluctantly, primarily so they can complain to each other about what a loser their freakout friend is. After the small group has left the area then the exact catastrophe which the psychic friend foresaw occurs.

The person comes to the attention of the local authorities or more usually the FBI, who can't believe the person didn't cause the tragedy somehow. Soon after the brush with death though, the survivors all start to perish in seemingly random and quite improbable ways. The local coroner (Tony Todd) who may or may not be an avatar of Death, shows up to warn the psychic that Death won't be mocked and the group's only hope of survival is to somehow break the pattern.

The real appeal of these movies is to detail all the numerous ways in which death can strike us all at anytime. Food that goes down the wrong way causes choking and asphyxiation instead of a cough. You slip and fall the wrong way on a wet bathroom floor and hit your head. Everything that can go wrong with a LASIK treatment does. The guy sitting next to you at a baseball game doesn't catch the foul ball but you do-right in the face. This may or not be your cup of tea but FD5 is consistent and is exactly like the previous four movies. See one, you've seen them all.
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