Saturday, March 10, 2018


Freshman writer & director Bryan Bertino's new horror movie "The Strangers" (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an eerie, ominous, white-knuckled account of an after-dark home invasion. If you live deep in the woods where the plot unfolds, this nerve-racking, scream-inducing exercise in terror will make you think before you answer the front door at 4 AM. Horror fanatics that thrive on suspense, surprises, and blood-curdling chills in a plausible context will crave this gripping, low-budget, nail-biter. "The Strangers" is not a supernatural horror movie. Although "The Strangers" neither matches nor surpasses either Sam Peckinpah's violent classic "Straw Dogs" (1971) or Ruggero Deodato's horrific "The House on the Edge of the Park" (1980), both legendary home invasion epics that set the bar high for imitators, this Rogue Pictures Release has more than its share of virtues. Bertino uses silence to create suspense and alternates silence with the sudden appearances of the intruders in masks to build tension. Deep-fried gorehounds will complain about the shortage of blood and humor.

"The Strangers" opens with an anonymous "Dragnet" style narrator talking in a funereal tone. According to him, FBI statistics show one-point-four million violent crimes occur annually in America. He adds that intruders attacked both Kristen McKay and James Hoyt in their summer house at 1801 Clark Road, in South Carolina, on February 11, 2005. No such actual incident occurred, but the semi-documentary approach enhances the film's authenticity. Incredibly, Bertino lets the cat out of the bag at the beginning. Two Mormon boys on bikes in white shirts pedal up to 1801 Clark Road. They find a smashed up car in the driveway with its glass shattered and the house's front doors have been battered down. Abruptly, Bertino turns back the hands of time. Typically, this kind of anti-climactic strategy would blunt a movie's impact. Already, you know the outcome. Nevertheless, Bertino relies on our morbid curiosity—we gawk at accidents—to draw us into the events of this unspeakable crime.

Kristen (Liv Tyler of the "Lord of the Rings" movies) and her boyfriend James Hoyt (Scott Speedman of the "Underworld" movies) are guzzling champagne at a wedding reception. Sweeping her off her feet, he carries her outside where he proposes marriage. Kristen rejects James. They leave the wedding in his car. An oppressive silence isolates them from each other until they reach the summer house in the sticks that belongs to James' parents. Kristen finds rose petals scattered across the carpet leading to the bathtub. James confesses that his brother Mike (Glenn Howerton of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") and he spent the morning preparing this reception. Kristen explains that she isn't ready for marriage. Later, the ice thaws between them. Kristen and James start to make out. This amorous interlude comes to an abrupt halt when somebody bangs on the front door. They glance at the clock; it's four in the morning. At the door, they meet a wayward young woman. She inquires about somebody that neither Kristen nor James know. After a moment elapses, the girl vanishes into the night.

Kristen asks about cigarettes and James drives off to buy them. While James is gone, the mysterious girl returns and hammers at the door. Kristen tries to ignore her. She finds a beer from the fridge. While she is musing about the evening's events, a man wearing a white flour sack turned inside out on his head appears in the background. Suddenly, Kristen spots him. She starts screaming. Our heroine locks herself inside a bedroom. She cowers there in fear with a steak knife in one bloody hand until James returns. He refuses to believe that anybody has broken into the house. James takes Kristen on a tour of the premises and shows her that they are alone. When James asks her about her cell phone, Kristen tells him that the intruders stole it. James checks his car and finds it in a shambles. He stares at a girl not far away wearing a Pin-Up Girl mask. Afterward, all Hell breaks loose.

What sets Bertino apart from Peckinpah and Deodato is that he pares everything down to its bare essentials. We know very little about the killers. They wear ordinary masks, and Bertino never reveals their faces. All he wants us to know is they are random, cold-blooded killers. Basically, they want is to corner somebody at home somewhere that they can torture and kill. Neither Kristen nor James has done anything to deserve their tragic fate. They are in the wrong place at the right time for our homicidal maniacs. Bertino keeps the story short, simple, but far from sweet. Liv Tyler is a scream queen natural, and Bertino paces the film for maximum impact. The assailants have a way of being everywhere at once, and their encounters with Kristen are guaranteed to shock. Bertino loves to let the intruders emerge unbeknownst behind our heroes or to tackle them out of the blue like a football linebacker. Indeed, Bertino leaves out so much that your typical hack horror director would wallow in that "The Strangers" seems comparatively poetic in his down-to-earth authenticity. Altogether, "The Strangers" will hoist your hackles and keep them hoisted during its brisk but hallowing 85 minutes.

Monday, February 19, 2018


The terrorist thriller “The 15:17 to Paris” (*** OUT OF ****) recreates the chaos aboard the Amsterdam-to-Paris train on 21 August 2015, when three American tourists foiled an armed and dangerous fanatic from killing more 500 unsuspecting passengers.  Anybody else but director Clint Eastwood would have turned this ruckus into the equivalent of “Saving Private Ryan” on rails.  Instead, the director of “American Sniper” and “Sully” has adopted an entirely different tactic.  Not only has he cast the ‘real-life heroes’ who saved the day as themselves, but he has also lensed it with a documentary like realism to underline the credibility of the incident.  Indeed, those ‘real-life heroes’ (Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone) play themselves.  Mind you, none of them will take home Oscars, but casting them gives “The 15:17 to Paris” a verisimilitude that would be sorely missing.  Furthermore, the American-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian, who initially disarmed Ayoub El-Khazzani before the terrorist plugged him in the back, played himself, too!  Critics have argued that 87-year old Eastwood has wrought a routine, perhaps even a tedious tale that spends too much time leading up to the headline heroics.  They have complained the casting the ‘real-life heroes’ deprives the film of the gravitas that seasoned actors might have generated with their charisma. 

Too many critics have scorned the brilliant simplicity of Eastwood’s approach and misunderstood his commentary about heroism that has little to do with ersatz Hollywood heroics.  Ironically, despite their training, these tourists—two of whom are servicemen—were average nobodies.  The audacity and bravery that they displayed during a moment of crisis when everything could have gone horribly wrong makes them doubly heroic.  Eastwood seems to be saying that being at the right place at the right time under the right conditions can make anybody into a hero.  Spencer Stone stands out among the three because everything that prepared him for this date with destiny is shown from the time that he was a juvenile waging paintball war games with his buddies.  Eastwood and first-time scenarist Dorothy Blyskal do a splendid job of foreshadowing the action, the only flaw is their decision to treat Ayoub El-Khazzani as a flat, one-dimensional terrorist without a backstory.  Nevertheless, the filmmakers haven’t vilified him as a Satanic architect of malevolence and the scourge of humanity.  Presumably, had “The 15:17 to Paris” been more of a melodramatic exercise in fire and fury like “Saving Private Ryan” on a train, the film might have garnered the filmmakers’ greater accolades.

“The 15:17 to Paris” occurs in flashbacks interspersed with glimpses of ISIS extremist Ayoub El-Khazzani boarding the train, suiting up in a restroom, and then embarking on a murderous shooting spree.  Meantime, Eastwood and Blyskal show how the two white kids—Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos—crossed paths with African-American student Anthony Sadler at their local Christian High School in Sacramento, California.  Sadler was leaving the office of Principal Michael Akers (Thomas Lennon of “Night at the Museum”) for disciplinary reasons.  No sooner had they met Sadler than Akers warned them to avoid him because he constituted a bad influence.  Alek and Spencer were facing disciplinary action themselves for loitering at their lockers after the bell had rung.  A hall monitor demanded to see their hall passes and then sent them to Akers.  Not long after their initial encounter with Sadler, Alek and Spencer find themselves in trouble again with Akers.  Spencer and Alek would forge lifelong friendship with Sadler out of the crucible of school disobedience.  Ostensibly, the plot focuses primarily on Spencer after Alex leaves Sacramento to live with his estranged father in Oregon.  The action jumps ahead after they graduate from high school.  Eventually, Spencer sets out to join the ranks of the U.S. Air Force’s elite Para-Rescue. Unfortunately, Spencer’s lack of depth perception disqualifies him.  He has no better luck with the Air Force’s SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) Program.  Similarly, he fares no better training to be an EMT.  Meantime, taciturn Alek has joined the Oregon National Guard.  He serves in Afghanistan, finds it rather monotonous, and compares himself to a mall cop.  Alek’s scenes make “The 15:17 to Paris” look like a companion piece to Eastwood’s exemplary combat epic “American Sniper” (2014) about real-life Navy S.E.A.L. shooter Chris Kyle. Eventually, the three guys reunite and head off on a backpacking trip of European capitals.  Impatient audiences may grow restless with this laid-back hike that takes our heroes from Venice, Italy, to Germany, Amsterdam, and then Paris.  At one point, while they are sightseeing in Venice, Spencer confides in Sadler, “You ever just feel like life is just pushing us towards something?”  What you don’t notice is the sly way that Clint Eastwood has set audiences up for what ensues on the train.  Spencer subdued the lone gunman not only because he had mastered jiu-jitsu, but he also saved wounded Frenchman Mark Moogalian’s life because of his training as an EMT.  Eastwood deliberately gives the scenes from the lives of our heroes a casual nonchalance before he plunges them into the actual fracas aboard the train. 

As actors, Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos leave something to be desired, but they don’t bump into each other or blow their lines.  Since they aren’t professionals, they seem self-conscious about their body language and dialogue.  No, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has resorted to real McCoys.  World War II hero Audie Murphy reenacted his Medal of Honor exploits in “To Hell and Back” in 1955.  Sports celebrities have portrayed themselves, such as Bronx bomber Babe Ruth in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942) as well as African-American ballplayer Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950). Real-life Marine Staff Sergeant Lee Emery became a popular character actor after he appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”  Likewise, genuine Navy SEALS portrayed themselves in “Act of Valor” (2012).  Altogether, Eastwood stages a gripping reenactment of the autobiographical events depicted in Jeffrey E. Stern’s 2016 factual bestseller “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Monday, February 12, 2018


An audacious, white-knuckled, adrenaline-laced, cops and robbers’ crime thriller with a twist ending, writer & director Christian Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) pits a loose cannon L.A. County Sheriff’s Department detective against a crackerjack team of gunmen shaped in the crucible of combat while serving as soldiers in the Middle East.  These nonconformist warriors came home, clashed with the law, and survived the purgatory of prison to emerge as an elite gang angling for the big score before they retreat into obscurity.  The lead in “300” and “Olympus Has Fallen,” Gerard Butler turns in a strong performance as an obsessive cop struggling with marital woes. Pablo Schreiber of “13 Hours” commands the villains.  He matches wits with Butler in a lively cat and mouse game where survival is the prize and a cold slab in a morgue is the penalty for those who stray from the straight and the narrow.  50 Cent fans may not recognize a buffed-up Curtis James Jackson III.

“Den of Thieves” reminded me of Michael Mann’s superb bank robbery movie “Heat” (1995) where Al Pacino’s rugged cop tangled with Robert De Niro’s hard-nosed bank robber in a high stakes showdown.  The difference between “Den of Thieves” and “Heat” is Butler displays little respect for his adversaries.  Meantime, the villains have a few tricks up their sleeves that nobody, especially armchair detectives, may be prepared for at fadeout.  Although he makes his debut as a director, Christian Gudegast has already established his bonafides as a genre specialist with not only the Vin Diesel thriller “A Man Apart,” but also Butler’s “London Has Fallen,” the gung-ho sequel to “Olympus Has Fallen.”  Butler is at his best as a tough-guy protagonist, and his gritty performance compares strongly with Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of an unorthodox, hard-as-nails, NYPD detective in the 1972 Best Picture “The French Connection.”  A wry sense of humor pervades this 140-minute, R-rated opus, but it never undercuts the gravity of the action.  Mind you, a fourth quarter glitch in credibility threatens to unravel the plausibility of plot.  Nevertheless, Gudegast and “Prison Break” creator and co-scribe Paul Scheuring have worked out meticulously the logistics of this far-fetched caper. They conclude it with an out-of-left-field finale like Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995) that wowed everybody.  If you like your heist thrillers served up with lots of testosterone, tense ‘snap, crackle, pop’ firefights, and obstinate adversaries who refuse to flee, “Den of Thieves” is your ticket.

Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler of “London Has Fallen”) runs a squad tasked with bank robberies.  His guys could be mistaken for stone-cold, Russian mafia gunsels.  They are unkempt, and their arms are engraved with tattoos.  They have no qualms about violating rules.  Everything is fair once they “click” off their safeties.  Nick’s free-for-all lifestyle doesn’t harmonize with his wife, Debbie (Dawn Olivieri of “The Wolverine”), and her dreams of middle-class domesticity with their two elementary school age daughters.  Naturally, they don’t understand why she walks out on their father.  As the film unfolds, “Den of Thieves” presents statistics that classify Los Angeles as “the bank robbery capital of the world” with a hold-up every 48 minutes.  Basically, Gudegast’s epic is a West coast version of Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2005), where Boston boasted more bank robbers per capita than any other city.  Meanwhile, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) has assembled a posse of heavily-armed, former Marines, who have matriculated through prison after returning stateside.  They carry out their crimes with a military precision. Those plans hit a snag when they approach an armored car after dark outside a donut shop.  A hail of bullets erupts like Armageddon descending.  An innocent bystander lives to tell the authorities that he saw masked shooters lay down a barrage on the guards.  Later, after he arrives at the scene, Nick plunders a sprinkled donut from a box that one of the guard’s dropped during the massacre.
Gudegast doesn’t give the audience a chance to get comfortable.  Upfront without any delay, he stages a violent, night-time attack on an armored car as if he were imitating “Black Hawk Down.” The villains mow down the off-duty guards, steal their armored car, and then stash it safely out of sight. They send somebody back to photograph the various law enforcement personnel at the crime scene.  Merrimen isn’t happy one of their own lies sprawled dead in it.  Eventually, Nick suspects Merrimen may be the ringleader.  Unfortunately, the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him.  They stake Merriman out and search for accomplices. They abduct an African-American, Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr. of “Straight Outta Compton”), who tends bar where Merrimen drinks. The two show up in surveillance snaps.  Nick interrogates Donnie in a motel where his deputies are having a party.  Primarily, Nick is interested in Merrimen, and Donnie confesses he serves just as a getaway driver.  Merrimen confides nothing in him.  Donnie heaves a sigh of relief when Nick turns him loose.  Meantime, Donnie doesn’t share the incident with Merrimen.  Merrimen unveils their master plan.  They have decided to liberate $30-million in clean currency from the fortress-like branch of the L.A. Federal Reserve Bank!  The gauntlet of security checkpoints and surveillance cameras that they must contend with makes “Den of Thieves” look like a Tom Cruise “Mission Impossible” cliffhanger.

Apart from a domestic strife scene when Nick fails to reason with his wife, “Den of Thieves” shifts back and forth between the sheriffs and the robbers.  Gudegast emphasizes the professionalism on both sides.  Merrimen’s gunmen shoot only those who shoot at them.  Furthermore, the bad guys orchestrate a multifaceted heist that involves them infiltrating the Federal Reserve and looting it smack under the nose of the guards.  Suddenly, brazen Nick blows his cover and approaches Donnie and Merrimen in a restaurant and lets them know about him.  This is Nick’s way of going off the reservation that spikes the suspense.  Surprises and revelations ensue. “Den of Thieves” is “Heat”/”The Town” laced with “The Usual Suspects.”


Good westerns are few and far between nowadays.  “Black Mass” writer & director Stuart Cooper’s cavalry vs. the Indians western “Hostiles” (**/12 OUT OF ****), co-starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, ranks as above-average.  Not only does “Hostiles” resemble John Ford’s greatest western, “The Searchers” (1956), starring John Wayne, but it also pays tribute to Ford’s farewell film, “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), with its revisionist sentiments about the ghastly treatment of Native Americans. Ford enjoyed a rewarding career in Hollywood depicting the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in his popular John Wayne cavalry epics: “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and “Rio Grande” (1950).  Ultimately, Ford performed an about-face where Indians were concerned with “Cheyenne Autumn.”  Similarly, critics are comparing “Hostiles” to Clint Eastwood’s final oater “Unforgiven” (1992), and its sentiments about killing. Eastwood’s western image evolved from his portrayal of an amiable cowboy in television’s “Rawhide” (1959-1965) to a ruthless bounty hunter in Sergio Leone’s bloodthirsty Spaghetti westerns before the actor made his characters contemplative in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), “Pale Rider” (1985), and “Unforgiven” (1992). “Unforgiven” constituted a meditation on violence where it is depicted as anything but glamorous.  Director Stuart Cooper wastes too time on these two themes: the annihilation of Native Americans and the repulsion for bloodshed.  Unfortunately, “Hostiles” ponders these profound themes rather than entertaining us with unforgettable action.  Nothing happens for long stretches as the cavalry ushers a notorious Indian chief from New Mexico to Montana, where the government has decided that he may die in honor.  During that long trek, the cavalry encounters other murderous Native Americans as well as some wholly despicable Caucasians.  Clocking in at a dreary 135 minutes, this scenic horse opera seems as apologetic as it is saddle-sore. 

“Hostiles” unfolds on the frontier in 1892 with a sudden, suspenseful Indian attack on peaceful New Mexican homesteaders.  Murderous Comanche raiders wearing war paint descend upon Wesley Quaid (Scott Shepherd of “Side Effects”), his wife Rosalee (Rosamund Pike of “Die Another Day”), and their teenage daughters with little warning.  Not only do these ferocious savages kill Wesley without difficulty, but they also gun down Wesley’s two daughters, Lucy (Ava Cooper) and Sylvie (Stella Cooper), as they flee behind their mother into the woods.  Miraculously, Rosalee evades the hostiles, even though she has her newborn cradled in her arms.  She hides in the woods while the Indians burn their house down and then ride away.  Tragically, Rosalee realizes afterward the baby in her arms is dead, too.  She bundles the bodies back to the burnt house and covers them up as if they were asleep.  The scene shifts to a faraway U.S. Cavalry fort.   “3:10 to Yuma” actor Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, an unrepentant, Indian-hating cavalry officer.  He shares the sentiments of Civil War-era General Phil Sheridan, who said: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."  Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang of “Avatar”) summons Blocker with orders for him to take a dying Cheyenne, Indian Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi of “Last of the Mohicans”), and his family back to Montana.  According to Colonel Biggs, Yellow Hawk is dying from cancer, and President Harrison has granted the chief’s wish to die in his ancestral lands.  

Initially, Blocker is not ecstatic with those orders, and he refuses to accommodate the colonel because he abhors Indians generally and Chief Yellow Hawk specifically.  We learn throughout “Hostiles” that Blocker has been slaughtering Indians for twenty years.  He has taken part in atrocities galore, and he has no qualms about killing Native Americans.  Nevertheless, Biggs points out, if Blocker doesn’t carry out the Presidential order to resettle Yellow Hawk that he will have to convene a court-martial.  Moreover, Blocker will lose his Government pension.  Miserably, Blocker agrees to shepherd Yellow Hawk to Montana.  No sooner has Blocker’s small patrol left the fort than he orders his sergeant to shackle Yellow Hawk.  He doesn’t trust him.  Eventually, they encounter the grief-stricken, traumatized Rosalee, and Blocker’s troopers bury her dead for her.  Afterward, Rosalee accompanies the escort.  Before they reach Montana, Blocker and company will tangle not only with the same Comanches that wiped out Rosalee’s family, but also hostile white ranchers and trappers.  At first, Blocker doesn’t change his attitude toward Chief Yellow Hawk.  By the time they reach their destination, the cavalry captain experiences a change of attitude.  Yellow Hawk wins Blocker’s respect.  When a pugnacious white landowner demands that Blocker get off his sprawling acreage or he will kill them, presidential order notwithstanding, Blocker no longer has any qualms about killing his own kind.  Incredibly, Rosalee undergoes a similar change, and she sympathizes for the chief and his plight.  When the final showdown comes between Blocker and the rancher, Rosalee pitches in to help, demonstrating her accuracy with a repeating rifle.

Stuart Cooper, who also helmed “Crazy Heart” (2009) with Jeff Bridges and “Out of the Furnace” (2013) with Christian Bale, penned the “Hostiles” script from an unpublished story by the late writer Donald Stewart, best known for “The Hunt for Red October.”  Basically, “Hostiles” is an average oater, bolstered by a sterling cast.  Bale couldn’t be better, neither could his co-stars, especially Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, and Stephen Lang. Ironically, despite its apologetic attitude to Native Americans, Cooper makes little use of Wes Studi and Adam Beach.  Whatever the reason, an interesting episode where Yellow Hawk and his son sneak out of camp to kill the Comanches harassing them has been confined to expository dialogue rather than an action scene.  Studi and Beach look noble, but they remain on the sidelines.  “Hostiles” is also predictable.  Inevitably, we know Captain Blocker is going to change his attitude, show grudging respect for the Indians, and then butcher whites for interfering with his mission.  “Hostiles” suffers too from dialogue mumbled, campfire scenes unnecessarily murky, and stretches where even the scenery doesn’t relieve the monotony.