Monday, October 27, 2008

The Strangers

It's the end of October and Halloween is in the air again. The temperature drops, the leaves start to fall and it's the perfect time to shut off the lights, curl up on the couch with a plate full of pumpkin seeds and hot cider and settle in for a marathon of good old fashioned horror movies. Sadly, "good old fashioned horror movies" are in short order these days, as the industry seems to have forgotten what truly makes a movie scary anymore. Then I watched The Strangers.

On the surface, it's easy to pass this movie off as "just another horror movie," but upon closer inspection, it's so much more than that. Produced on what looks like a shoestring budget with only six characters to speak of, The Strangers relies almost solely on mood and atmosphere as opposed to flashy special effects and excessively gory deaths. From the outset, the movie is an uncomfortable journey into fear. The main characters Jamie (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) share an inordinate amount of uncomfortable silences before the story actually begins to unfold, setting a sort of base coat of tension in preparation for what's to come.

High marks go to first time writer/director Bryan Bertino on a number of levels. The actors (especially Liv Tyler, who spends a large portion of the movie in front of the camera by herself) handle themselves admirably, reining in more than believable performances. Tactfully placed reveal shots combined with sparse lighting and a very red heavy color palette add to the mood. The fluid narrative and depth of character help to raise The Strangers above typical "torture porn" and transcend the horror genre to an almost psychological level. The violence is sparse and blood kept to a minimum and yet, the film pulls off what gorier incarnations have failed to achieve.

It's obvious that Bertino understands the basic principles of genre film-making (or any kind, for that matter.) In order to create a truly visceral, real and terrifying experience you have to place to viewer in the mindset of the characters, make them feel the tension of the moment as if it were happening to them. This is something that's been missing from horror movies for as long as I've been watching them, and that's the problem. I've only been watching them and not experiencing them as the genre begs them to be. The Strangers is as effective today as John Carpenter's Halloween was in 1978, all the while never bothering itself with cliched serial killer stereotypes. So I welcome the fall season with a shiver in my spine and and a paranoid glance over my shoulder. The Strangers has succeeded where so many others have failed.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Burn After Reading

If you've ever seen a Coen Brothers film, you know just how abstract and disjointed a cohesive narrative can get, in fact, I've come to expect it from them. Even their more mainstream films like Intolerable Cruelty displayed wildly erratic behaviour and character traits commonplace to any typical psyche ward. If this is what you're expecting, Burn After Reading will not disappoint by any means.

Burn combines the more ridiculous aspects of the CIA, online dating, paranoia and the workout culture into a mystery of absurd proportions (in the same narrative confusion that made The Big Lebowski such a cult phenomenon.) Everything about the story is closely hinged on the idea that nobody has a clue what anyone else is really up to causing a ripple effect of idiocy and overreaction that ends up having some very entertaining (if not morbidly violent) repercussions.

The show stealer this time around is Brad Pitt (tactfully credited last) as the flamboyantly energetic and charmingly dim gym instructor. His interplay with co-worker Frances McDormand (who, unfortunately hasn't had a notable role since 2001's Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous) is brilliantly hilarious. Coming in second is George Clooney as the paranoid, womanizing, sexual deviant. John Malkovich drops almost as many eff-bombs as John Goodman in Lebowski. Richard Jenkins takes a turn for the morose (opposite his excitable and furious role in Step Brothers.) Tilda Swinton is a smarmy bitch and J.K. Simmons provides a confused objective commentary from his office in the CIA.

The culmination of the film is a whirlwind of bizarre incidents that would be classified as "wacky" if it weren't a Coen Brothers film, instead they can be chalked up as poignant absurdity. While not their best film of late, it is a fun ride that rises out of the shadows of last years dark award winner No Country for Old Men.