Friday, May 30, 2008

Home on Derange: The Home Invasion Thriller “The Strangers” is a Shocking Creepfest

There’s nothing more frightening than the idea of home invasion. Knowing that someone could enter your home to do whatever he or she wants. To kill? To steal? Sure in scary movies anything can be scary whether it’s ghosts, aliens or monsters. But nothing is more terrifying than a human being with the intent to kill. Have them put on a creepy mask and you have pretty much one of the worst things to fear in the world. Now imagine you are home alone, in the middle of nowhere and someone starts banging on your front door. You call a loved one on the houseline but you get cut off. You race to your charging cellphone and realize that someone has taken it. Before you know it a guy with a burlap sack over his face is leering at you through your bedroom window. All of this occurs in the latest scarefest “The Strangers.” And I think I now need a new change of underwear.

“The Strangers” is a completely frightening and intense experience. It has one of the most effective and suspenseful premises, which is fearsome idea of home invasion. There are three masked psychos who are after a couple played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman for no other reason than “because they were home.” Kristen (Tyler) and James (Speedman) return to his family’s vacation house late one night after a wedding. We sense that something is off about the couple. They seem like they’ve recently had a fight. It looks like James wanted to propose and it seems as though Kristen wasn’t ready to accept his proposal. There’s a knock at the door and a young woman, cast in shadow, asks for Tamra. They insist she has the wrong house and that’s that. Before they know it these “strangers” are completely terrorizing this couple which they soon find out won’t end until someone is dead.

Now it is important to note that this is much more of a thriller than a standard horror flick. It has much more to due with classics like “Halloween” than it does with typical modern fare like “Hostel.” This isn’t a torture porn feature that relies on gruesome gore to get a reaction from the audience. You could writer/director Bryan Bertino has been influenced by the likes of early John Carptender and even Alfred Hitchcock in that it’s more important to establish character and create suspense. The film takes it’s time to get going and builds and builds and builds to the point where you’ll be squeezing the armrest or the person next to you. Bertino would rather scare his audience with a creepy mask by slowing revealing the killer behind the protagonist than by just cutting someone’s head off.

This is a very simplistic movie that pretty much does everything right. The actors are good and Liv Tyler actually makes quite a good Scream Queen. The characters don’t do anything too stupid except for one instance where James leaves Kristen all by herself in the house (and he’s got the shotgun!). We don’t learn anything about the killers except that they are only human beings. We know they aren’t’ just about wanting to murder; they want to psychologically taunt this couple. This movie succeeds where other recent attempts at horror have failed (like the Saw films for instance) because the story is simple and to the point. You can relate to the realist situation going on and realize that it could happen to anyone, anywhere. There’s no real motive, no twist, no surprising revelation just good old fashioned scares. This film feels like it was made during the 70s, where the less shown is more. It’s sort of “Last House on the Left” meets “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” meets “Halloween” meets “When a Stranger Calls” meets “In Cold Blood” which means if you even remotely liked any of the movies I just mentioned, this will be right up your alley.

I am reminded of the film “Funny Games” which came out a few months ago in which a team of young men psychologically and physically abuses a family to death. That film had something to say about violence in the media and how American audiences perceive violence as entertainment. This is really the type of movie that Funny Games was trying to dismiss, but you know what? “The Strangers” is much more about atmosphere and suspense. Yeah it’s sort of depressing and makes you feel bummed out in the end, but if a movie can scare the crap out of you and make you scared to return home, it definitely has done its job.

PS – The movie is supposedly based on a true story. As to what specific case this is based on I don’t really know, but I believe it to be based on several incidents and not one specific crime. GRADE: B+

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fedora the Explorer: Spielberg and That Star Wars Guy Whip Up “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

My favorite Indiana Jones movie is ‘Temple of Doom.’ You know the one where the Indian cult rips peoples’ hearts out? The one with that little Chinese kid? The one that got parents all over the country up in arms about motion picture violence which in turn caused the MPAA to issue a producer-friendly PG-13 rating that changed the way films are marketed towards the young ones? Yeah that one. So if you really want to know what I thought of the new Indiana Jones maybe you should stop reading. You know why? Because I actually think this fourth installment is better than ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ Yeah you read that correctly, the one with the big boulder and the melting face? It’s better.

The film opens up in a fun way that reveals the story’s updated timeframe. We’re now in the fifties, which means fear of Communism of course. Nazis are out, Russians are in. Speilberg stages this stuff we ease and it’s interesting to see how far he’s come as a filmmaker since the last Indiana Jones film. Since then he’s matured with darker themed works like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich, but he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of fun. His cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski adapts his trademark dark and gritty style for a much more bright palate that fits the brighter tone of the film. Yeah the movie has it’s dark creepy parts (like the other three) but the film is not afraid to be as funny as it is action-packed.

Speaking of action, yes there is lots of it. And even though Harrison Ford is pushing through his sixties he can just jump and run with the best of ‘em. Shia LaBeouf is a great addition, although if you’re expecting a Short Round replacement, you’ll feel disappointed. The pair works well together much in the same way Ford and Sean Connery worked so well in ‘Last Crusade.’ I want to reveal very little about the film’s story as to keep you all in dire suspense, but I will say like the others it has a supernatural-type of element that actually works and isn’t quite as silly as you would think.

If anything, I will say the beginning of the film sort of felt a little slow for me. There is a bunch of exposition that mostly went over my head, but once Karen Allen returns as Indy’s love Marion, things certainly pick up. And let’s just say the film’s best asset is that of super chameleon/actress Cate Blanchett who is simply sensational as the villainous Irina Spalko who is determined to get her hands on a certain type of skull made of crystal (cue the McGuffin) which gives the film its title. What a fun villain this is. After all, a movie is only as good as its villain.

Overall, this new Indiana Jones adventure is a good time. David Koepp’s script is fun and fast paced and its good to see George Lucas focus on something besides “Star Wars” for once. If you like the original films, you’re bound to enjoy this. And darned if John Williams main theme isn’t one of the greatest ever composed. As long as you’re not expecting the second coming of Christ, you could do a lot worse than ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” GRADE: B+

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sigh Velocity: The Unexciting “Speed Racer” Leaves You Feeling Exhausted

Some people may tell you that after watching “Speed Racer” up on the big screen, you will get a) a headache b) motion sickness or c) a massive seizure. Well I didn’t really get any of those things. What happened to me while sitting in my seat for over two hours was shear boredom. I felt like I was playing Mario Kart but I wasn’t actually playing. I felt like I was watching someone ekse play Mario Kart and watching someone play videogames isn’t really fun. I wish I had a headache and I wish I had a seizure, that way at least I know my body would have had some other kind of physical reaction to the Wachowski brothers' latest flick. It almost reminded me of “There Will Be Blood.” These two films are COMPLETE opposites yet they both caused the same exact feeling in me: the need to never see either film again.

I had my doubts about Speed Racer from the beginning. Yes it looks like a wild videogame gone bad. It’s as if it had been designed by a videogame maker while that person was high on LSD. In fact, and I’m not advocating drugs or anything, but I’m sure crackheads will get much more enjoyment out of this film than any other normal man, woman or child who sees it. I honestly thought it looked “cool.” I’m the last person who advocates seeing a movie just because of its visual style, after all it took me about eight years just to watch the first Matrix movie. But there was just something so fun and colorful about Speed Racer’s advertisements that sort of drew me in like a moth to a bright light. Or a moth to a bug zapper I should say. And the cast. What a great cast. We’ve got Emile Hirsch hot off his standout film Into the Wild. Susan Sarandon, who rarely makes bad movies. John Goodman, Christina Ricci (who I’ve always been a little wishy-washy about) and Lost’s Matthew Fox. Everyone is very good, but this is definitely not an “actor’s movie.” So yes the film is colorful and is probably a colorblind person’s nightmare and the actors are all decent in their roles, but other than that Speed Racer has very little to offer.

In all honestly I was hoping for the best here. The plot, which many are saying is lame, to me, is just confusing. Young Speed (Hirsch) wants to be a racecar driver when he grows up even though his older brother died in a fiery crash. A corporate guy who sponsors only the best drivers wants to sign Speed but he insists on not becoming just a product. There this is some kind of subplot involving an Asian guy and then there are some Matrix style marital arts moves. Oh yeah and Speed’s kid brother has a cute monkey for a pet. Meanwhile we get lots or computer enhanced racing scenes that are completely devoid of suspense or excitement. I at least hoped that these scenes would be thrilling because the story did absolutely nothing for me. In fact I don’t really know who exactly would enjoy this movie. My knowledge of the cartoon the film is based on is limited to what I've seen in that Geico commercial, but I imagine the film is for diehards only and has very little mass audience appeal.

Remember I said this film reminded me of “There Will Be Blood?” Well they are very different films. Blood is very slowly paced, a subdued color scheme and limited effects (if any really). Speed Racer has an edit every millisecond, has more colors than that huge box of Crayola crayons you begged for as a child, and more CGI than a Pixar movie. They both are technically very different, but to me both belong on the “is this movie over” category. I didn’t note hate Speed Racer. I didn’t run up to the box office demanding a refund, but for all the bells and whistles, the movie just doesn’t have too much to offer. Go see “Iron Man” again instead. GRADE: C

NOTE: While it may seem crazy for me to compare the Academy Award-winning film “There Will Be Blood” (a film I didn’t enjoy but appreciate for its artistic merit) with the hyperactive will-cause-ADD-in-children film “Speed Racer” I am merely pointing out that idea that two completely different styles of filmmaking could have the same effect on me.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Alloyed Intelligence: “Iron Man” Kicks Off Summer on a High Note IEEEEEEEEEEE!

Remember the first time you went to see your favorite superhero movie? I remember mine. It was about six years ago, when the first Spiderman movie opened. I had never been much of Spiderman fan before. I never read the comics. I basically knew nothing about Spiderman at all. I saw the movie and everything changed. I wanted to be Spiderman. I would bounce on my trampoline pretending to shoot webs out of my wrists. I had the soundtrack, which I would listen to on repeat. Spiderman was the movie to see in the summer of 2002. No other superhero movie has come close to reliving that feeling in me. Yes Spiderman 2 was technically a better movie than the original but by that time, my obsession with Spiderman seemed to wan. Flash forward six years later and here we have another summer with a superhero headliner: Iron Man. While the film doesn’t make me want to act like a total loser on my trampoline, its probably one the better comic book adaptations to come in some time. Many are saying that most of the success is related to star Robert Downey Jr. which is mildly true, but really what we have here is an all around fantastic movie with great characters, acting, special effects and most importantly a script that doesn’t make you feel guilty for paying so much to attend the movie.

As directed by Jon Favreau whose previous directing efforts include ‘Zathura’ (?) and ‘Elf’ (!), Iron Man is a well-made comic book adaptation that is successful in many ways. First, it is impeccably cast. Downey Jr. in my opinion doesn’t necessarily scream “superhero” but he really shows off his skills here as Tony Stark. Stark is basically like Batman’s Bruce Wayne but with a much more fun and bright personality. His parents left him as heir to their wealthy weapons company Stark Industries. While in Afganistan there is an attack and he becomes held captive for three months. He escapes when he builds a suit made of various metals. This experience changes him for the better and he perfects a better suit that can fly and shoot at bad guys. He’s cared for by his own younger and curvier version of Alfred: Ms. Potts (a surprisingly good Gwyneth Paltrow). Stark decides that his company is “wrong” for supplying weapons of mass destruction; Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane (a bald Jeff Bridges) doesn’t like this too much.

What is so great about the movie is that it’s witty and funny without being silly (see Fantastic Four). It takes itself seriously like Batman Begins, but it doesn’t wallow in the boring psychosis of its main character. We get learn who Tony Stark is through his actions and dialogue, we don’t need to see inside his head to understand his personality. There really isn’t a scene that is wasted and instead of being constantly bludgeoned by action scene after action scene the script (from two of the writers of ‘Children of Men’) features Stark becoming Iron Man rather than fight scene after fight scene. It’s a movie that is superbly balanced. You wont be saying, “oh he takes too long to become Iron Man” and you won’t be saying, “He becomes Iron Man too quickly.” It follows a perfect pace that lets the characters become enjoyable to the audience without the kitschy dialogue usually found in these movies.

I knew nothing about Iron Man going in and I was pleasantly surprised. You don’t need to be a fan to enjoy the movie, which is what good comic book movies know how to do best. They can please longtime fans and make new fans all within two hours. This is a movie that deserves a metal of honor. Get it? Iron Man is made of metal. See, the movie doesn’t include corny jokes like that. It is smart and fun and a great start to summer season. Can’t wait for part 2. GRADE: A-

Entertainment Weekly STILL Cares About My Opinions...Part Deux

I recently confessed my love of spoof movies in an message board and I am among 20 posters whose opinions you can read about here:,,20197754_13,00.html