Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Strangers

Following a close friend's wedding reception, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) make their way back to James' family's summer home where they are staying for the course of the wedding. Things are a little tense between the couple, because of an earlier disagreement, and they each need a little quiet time to absorb the past few hours and come to terms with what they feel the future holds for them, mutually and individually. Fortunately, the summer home is in an extremely secluded area unburdened by the distractions of modern civilization. However, In the wee hours of the morning, James and Kristen are paid a visit by three masked strangers (hence the name) who seemingly have no intent other than malice. Unfortunately, the summer home is in an extremely secluded area unburdened by the distractions of modern civilization. Isolated from any possible assistance, their fear meters pegged, what started out as an emotional late night of contemplation suddenly disintegrates into a surreal exercise in survival.

Honestly, I'm still kinda working this one out. In my opinion, a small percentage of the film is truly original while another small percentage is truly predictable or insulting, leaving the majority to do the best it can with typical suspense situations. What I've been trying to work out is whether or not this was a successful combination and, after much deliberation, I've decided that the movie succeeds, but only moderately. With that decided, I can say the final product falls somewhere between fair and good, however, there are a few standout qualities.

The two things that save this flick from a being a direct-to-video release or, at worse, a bad genre network made-for-televison movie, is the cast and the cinematography. Basically, the cast consists of five people, our poor tormented couple and the three masked strangers, with 99.9% of the dialog being delivered by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. Tyler is excellent in realistically protraying the gamut of emotion experienced by Kristin while Speedman is more than adequate but slightly stifled because of the nature of the James character. The fact that the three strangers have only five or six cumulative lines of dialog (one stranger has none) contributes to the overall intensity, insanity and isolation of the situation, leaving Tyler and Speedman to be the sole conduits of emotion and information, which they do surprisingly well, keeping in mind that many actors would have a procilivty to grossly over-act given similar opportunities. Meshing cohesively with the performances, as well as practically creating the stark isolated environment, is the seemingly simple and minimalistic use of lighting, especially that of the interior shots. What initially starts out as a warm, almost romantic, quality in the house, eventually becomes a character in it's own right as the tones and situations in the movie progress and change. I kept remembering how, as a child, the simple act of turning on an overhead light could banish the dark, the shadows (even sounds) and my fears in one quick motion. Not so here. Even with all the lights on and a fire in the fireplace, the interior scenes were never remotely bright and shadows were always prevalent making the darkness seem like a living thing trying to squeeze the life from the light. The muted lighting and use of grain in the film was very reminiscent of some of the great suspense/horror film from the '70's including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), even though in the '70's, that was simply how films were made because of the available technology, whereas in film making today, those types of things are actually conscious decisions. It's easy for me to say that my favorite aspect of the movie was how it looked.

Unfortunately, Tyler and, to a lesser degree, Speedman's acting along with the excellent cinematography still weren't enough to completely win me over. As I said earlier, for me, this was only a fair to good movie and the main reason for that is the conflict I felt with the story and the James Hoyt character. I'll not go into detail because what bothers me may not bother someone else. I've mentioned on several occasions the fact that I'm aware that different people react differently in intense situations and, for the most part, it's impossible to predict how an individual will respond to every scenario, however, it's my opinion that certain reactions are merely a question of instinct, meaning that in many cases, the best action is no action, and the average person would act accordingly. Keep in mind that I'm not confusing instinct with intelligence because, as most of us who use polysyllabic words know, if it were a matter of intelligence, the average person would be (and usually is) toast in these suspense/horror type situations. I guess what I'm trying to say is that in movies like this, I'd like to see more experimental creativity with character development rather than dependence on tweaked cliches.

Oh, and while I would never try to indicate that I know exactly how I would respond were I to find myself in the same situation as Kristen and James, I can guarantee that when I get the shotgun in my hands, along with a shoe box full of shells, the game is unequivocally over.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Chiwetel Ejiofor (Choo-i(t)-tell Edge-oh-for) stars as Jiu-jitsu master and instructor Mike Terry in this latest offering from from writer and director David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, House of Games, Heist). As an instructor, Mike excels at teaching his students to prevail and see the honor in their conflicts, however, as a business owner, he is failing miserably since his students alone are not bringing in enough money to sustain his dojo. Mike could easily make his business profitable were he to partake in the 'real' money of competition if only he didn't see competition fighting as a corruption of the spirit of what he represents. It is his desire for simplistic purity that is slowly strangling his business as well as straining his relationship with his wife who, to keep his studio afloat, uses money from her somewhat successful business to pay his bills. A break in the clouds appears in the form of a bar fight involving action movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), in which Mike saves the 'action man' from having his clock immaculately cleaned. After Chet remembers what year it is, several offers are made to Mike in appreciation and in recognition of his abilities and manner of teaching, which could open many Hollywood doors for not only Mike, but for his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), as well. Unfortunately, things are never as good as they seem and after realizing the type of people he's become involved with, Mike's future takes such a dark turn that his only possible salvation may be fighting in the type of commercialized competition that he has morally avoided for all of professional career.

I'm really glad I was able to see this film before the summer movie madness kicked into high gear since I was concerned that it's limited release would mean that it wouldn't be in my area, or, when it was, there would be a conflict with another movie I wanted to see. Thankfully, everything worked out and I was able to enjoy an extremely well written, solidly acted film that focused on a strong story with some nice twists and turns. Unfortunately, since this film doesn't sport a huge, big-name cast, concentrates on realism rather than flash and relies on the cast's emotion and dialog tell the story instead of gratuitous 'action' scenes, I'm pretty sure
Redbelt will end up in the 'respected small movie' category with hopes of finding a following, as well as recouping it's budget, through cable and video distribution. Again, that is unfortunate because many film fans who are unfamiliar with David Mamet but appreciate good storytelling will miss this well made and well told tale. As for the story, it's not unique, but, as I've mentioned in the past, it doesn't have to be as long as the telling is unique. I thought this particular telling was inspired because of a subtle, underlying chaos (and anxiety) that seems to permeate the character's lives and the fact that the film avoided the cliche of becoming a physical display designed to showcase a be-all and end-all final conflict reminiscent of The Karate Kid, sans Mr. Miyagi. Maybe it's just me, but any time there is a main character who is a martial arts master and the movie doesn't succumb to being a 'martial arts movie', I'm impressed.

The other thing that impressed me about this movie was the cast. I was already a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor's from having seen him in Dirty Pretty Things, Children of Men and, especially his turn as the intense but cordial killing agent in Serenity, so I wasn't surprised at how well he was able to simultaneously display the strength of a Jiu-jitsu master and the calm of a dedicated spiritualist. Kinda like a Jedi. However, I was surprised by Tim Allen's gritty performance as movie star Chet Frank. Allen's character was gruff, shady and calculating in a very film noir kind of way - it was an amazing (but not enough screen time) performance and, while trying not to seem overly perspicacious, I'd be willing to bet that Allen's portrayal was probably the closest we've ever come to seeing the real man behind the actor. Just a hunch. Emily Mortimer as attorney-with-issues Laura Black was not only well cast, but was incredibly believable on several emotional levels as was Alice Braga (recently seen in I Am Legend) as Mike's business and success oriented wife, Sondra. Other notable cast members include Joe Mantegna as the duplicitous (shocker) business partner type, Max Martini, veteran of such television shows as 24, CSI and The Unit, as Officer Joe Ryan and 90 mile per hour playing card thrower and magician Ricky Jay (X-Files, The Prestige) as slimy fight promoter Marty Brown. As you can tell, the cast is populated by people who have honed their craft by portraying a myriad of characters, and their backgrounds in solid characterizations help save this film from becoming the average type of drama that you might find on the T.N.T. network. ***Tangent*** Also, for those people who do see it but tend to lack certain observational skills, the character of Lucy Weiss, an associate of Chet Frank's wife, Zena, is portrayed by Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller's Day Off fame. I'm not sure if her name was in the opening credits but, after being 99% sure I had recognized her as Lucy, I made sure to double check the closing credits and saw that I was right. It's really unfortunate that her rhinoplasty made her look sooooo much better, but, in exchange, exacted such a negative impact on her career. *** End of Tangent ***

As I said earlier, this is a very solid and well written film and even though I don't anticipate it receiving tons of accolades, I do believe it's a film worth seeing. I don't know that I'd recommend a theater viewing, and given it's limited release that may prove difficult, anyway, but, if you're the type who appreciates a good drama populated by above average performances delivering sharp dialog, then I would definitely recommend adding Redbelt to your Netflix queue when it becomes available.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man

If you're not already familiar with the concept of Iron Man, here's a quick rundown: Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark - billionaire, genius inventor and playboy who is just charming enough to make you overlook his abundance of ego and the fact that he has little regard for anyone other than himself. On a trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest killing technology, Tony is seriously wounded and kidnapped by terrorists who, under threat of death, order him to build the same killing technology for their benefit. With the help of a fellow captive, Tony realizes that his life's work, rather than promote peace, has only served to prolong global conflict as the weapons he has designed have fallen into the hands of the very people he has wanted to protect the world against. Resigning himself to make atonement for his mistakes, instead of building a devastating weapon, Tony builds a crude but adequate and extremely ingenious suit of armor and makes his escape. Upon his return to the states, he perfects the armor design and with the help of his personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his best friend, Jim 'Rhodey' Rhodes (Terrence Howard), he sets out to use his company for something more positive than weapons manufacturing, much to the consternation of his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Big Fun! Iron Man is the perfect start to the Summer movie train - it's story has depth while not being convoluted on one end or simplistically trite on the other, the action is flashy but not overly used or ridiculously over the top and the characters are believable as people rather than exaggerated caricatures or empty vessels. The movie takes itself seriously without becoming preachy and always remembers to acknowledge it's inherent humor and, most importantly (at least in my opinion), the audience is never subjected to insulting scenarios or convenient deus ex machina. Now I'm not saying that the movie is scientifically sound and never breaks a single law of physics; if that were the case, the movie wouldn't have been half as good as an episode of MacGyver and, anyway, this is a superhero movie, so a little suspension of disbelief is required but, curiously, not as much as in some 'based on a true story' movies I've seen.

As for the players, I really don't think the film could have been cast any better. I've always heard that you can tell if a movie was cast correctly if, after the initial viewing, you can't imagine anyone else in a specific role. The character of Indiana Jones is a perfect example because even though everyone knows that Tom Selleck was the original choice, it is absolutely impossible to imagine anyone other then Harrison Ford under the fedora. This rings very true for Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark because Downey was able to infuse the right amounts of his own personality into the character that is Stark. In fact, there are several lines of dialog that I'm positive Downey ad-libbed brilliantly, further making the character his own, and, in addition, Downey should be credited with single handedly salvaging what would have been, at best, a mediocre final climatic battle. The supporting parts, while not being quite so actor specific, were equally well cast and portrayed, bringing a comfortable chemistry into practically every interaction that occurs, with the standout being the friendship and sexual tension between the characters of Pepper Potts and Tony Stark. Downey and Paltrow are perfect together and at certain points their interactions are reminiscent of David and Maddie from Moonlighting. Seriously - maybe not the heated and frenetic exchanges but definitely the 'trying to keep things professional while we stand this close' with exchanges of subtle glances that seem to say, "I know that you know that I know....." while being afraid to act on impulse for fear of the other's reaction. Rounding out the supporting players, Bridges and Howard bring a simple, gritty realism to two characters who could have easily and accidentally been portrayed with evangelistic zeal but, thankfully, were not. Together, the entire ensemble constructs a cohesive quality to their performances that, for lack of a better term, feels right, and it's that cohesiveness that works in conjunction with the action and special effects creating a Summer blockbuster that is, for the most part, as focused on the characters and what the audience thinks of them as it is on the CGI.

But don't just take my word for it. Unless, like Osama, you've been living in a cave (actually, I think he's been living in a condo in Boca, but that's another post), you've already heard how well the movie has been doing in it's first few days of release. Marvel has already confirmed the sequel along with several other titles with a possible film to bring several characters, including Iron Man, together (The Avengers). That's excellent and promising news to the legions of comic geeks and fans (I fall somewhere comfortably in the middle), but if you're not a fan of comics, don't let that deter you from seeing this really fun (and funny), well acted and exciting film.

Oh, and don't forget to stay until the end of the credits or you might miss something.