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Rating History

Straw Dogs
Straw Dogs (2011)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

It's been a long time since I saw director Sam Peckinpah's seminal movie, "Straw Dogs," but it's the kind of film you don't easily forget.

Peckinpah's social thriller provoked howls of outrage in 1971 for its violent content - in particular a prolonged rape scene in which the female lead, Amy (Susan George), appears to take (some) pleasure from the assault. Critics accused Peckinpah of misogyny. If the macho director's goal was to provoke controversy, he succeeded.

I don't presume to know if "no always means no," but I do know that this sexual ambiguity in Peckinpah's story - did Amy prefer her alpha-male assailant (an ex-boyfriend) to her pacifist husband, David (Dustin Hoffman)? - was critical to the film's climax. When the couple's home comes under siege by the rapist and his thuggish pals, much of the suspense derived from audience uncertainty about whether David and Amy could work as a team to survive.

Director Rod Lurie's remake dispenses with any questions about the rape: It's clear this time that Amy (Kate Bosworth) wants no part of it. This is a politically safe viewpoint, but it also subtracts tension from the final act when, once again, the home comes under attack.

But Lurie's "Straw Dogs" is effective because of the universal conflicts he exploits earlier in his film. When Hollywood players David and Amy return to Amy's hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi, the couple ignites a powder keg of culture clashes: city vs. country, privileged vs. poor, liberal vs. conservative, North vs. South, intellectual vs. anti-intellectual, and atheist vs. believer. Pretty boy David (James Marsden) is a lightning rod for Blackwater's football-loving, beer-guzzling good ol' boys. And Amy is a constant temptation.

Marsden is convincing as a proponent of the "can't we all just get along" school of thought, but he lacks Hoffman's charisma. Bosworth is a believable small-town-girl-turned-TV-star, but she also projects a bland personality. Hoffman and George were unforgettable. I'll remember them, but I won't remember this remake.

Expanded Review At: Grouchyeditor.com

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

If you haven't seen the Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the American remake should please you. If you have seen the original and decide to take in director David Fincher's copy- excuse me, "reimagining," prepare for déjà vu.

A year ago, I saw the Coen brothers' update of "True Grit." I enjoyed the new film, but it was a peculiar experience because - aside from new actors - I felt as though I was watching the 1969 John Wayne classic verbatim. I had that same feeling as I watched Fincher's much-hyped thriller. Fincher gets a lot of things right in adapting Stieg Larsson's novel: the wintry sterility of Swedish landscapes; casting the perfect actress to play the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander. But Danish director Niels Arden Oplev also got those things right in his 2009 original.

Oplev and Fincher both do some tweaking of Larsson's plot, but they've essentially made the same film. What made the first movie stand out was the chemistry between leads Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace. Rapace, especially, made a strong impression as Salander, the goth-girl computer hacker who helps track down a serial killer. In the new film, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara also strike sparks. But as the adage goes, the first time is always the best, and I prefer the Swedes.

Fincher is my favorite currently working American director. He deals with dark subject matter, and always puts a personal stamp on his projects. So this movie surprises me, because it hasn't a drop of originality. It isn't bad, mind you, just unnecessary.

Expanded Review At: Grouchyeditor.com

Fright Night
Fright Night (2011)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

Fans tend to get upset when Hollywood decides to remake a treasured movie, but I don't see much harm if the reboot is well done. "Fright Night," the 1985 cult-classic horror-comedy, was not exactly Shakespeare - but it was a lot of fun. "Fright Night," the 2011 version, is not quite as witty as its progenitor - but it, too, is a lot of fun.

Director Craig Gillespie and scripter Marti Noxon get a lot of things right for their remake, and they even toss in an improvement or two. The story's new setting, a cookie-cutter suburban tract near Las Vegas, is ideal for a vampire movie; hellish already, this bland chunk of isolated humanity is ripe for a monster invasion.

The film also retains the original's wicked sense of humor. And Anton Yelchin, as an awkward teen who suspects that his new neighbor might be a blood sucker, was an inspired casting choice. Yelchin is entirely believable as a kid struggling with high school horrors and, once Jerry the vampire (Colin Farrell) moves in next door, much, much more. Charley is such an innocuous "every kid" that, five minutes after the film ended, I doubt that I could have picked him out of a police lineup - even though I identified with him every minute of the film.

But "Fright Night" version II can't top the original. David Tennant, as monster hunter Peter Vincent, is no Roddy McDowall. Baby-faced Farrell, as the hunky vampire, is much better than I expected, but when he and his fellow undead are required to pull off the titular "fright night," the results are a bit of a letdown. Special effects can do only so much.

Expanded Review At: Grouchyeditor.com

The Devil's Double
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

"The Devil's Double" has been called "Scarface of Arabia," comparing it favorably to the ultra-violent Brian De Palma film - but that's giving "Double" too much credit.

"Scarface" worked largely because Al Pacino's Tony Montana was such a fascinating character: The Cuban gangster had goals and would do anything to attain them. The bad guy in "Double," a spoiled psychopath based on Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, also had goals, but they were base, childish ... and ultimately uninteresting. Uday wanted instant gratification, and if that meant rape, torture, or murder, so be it.

"The Devil's Double" is based on an autobiography by Latif Yahia, an Iraqi who was (allegedly) forced to act as Uday's body double in the late 1980s. Dominic Cooper plays both Uday and Latif and, although the actor does a credible job differentiating between them, the script doesn't offer a whole lot of depth to either man.

Uday rants, giggles and satisfies his wicked desires: abducting and raping schoolgirls, torturing and killing enemies. But unlike Tony Montana, Uday had no real power (that remained with his father). He was Caligula without the empire. Cooper bestows Uday with a high-pitched voice and manic mannerisms (at times bordering on the comical - not good in a movie of this nature). He plays Yahia, by contrast, with a laid-back demeanor and a permanently pained expression.

There is much violence in "The Devil's Double," if you like that kind of thing. But it's difficult to care about all of this mayhem when you care so little about the characters.

Expanded Review At: Grouchyeditor.com

Super 8
Super 8 (2011)
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

The best Steven Spielberg fantasies appeal to both children and adults; I can't imagine why anyone over 15 would really enjoy "Super 8," director J.J. Abrams's homage to Spielberg films. For younger kids, it's the kind of movie they will see and recall fondly for decades. And then one day -- 20 or 30 years from now, long after its special effects are passé -- they will catch it again on TV and wonder, "My God, why was I so entranced with this thing?"

The story begins well. A group of middle-school kids in Lillian, Ohio, circa 1979, are using the Super 8 film format to make a zombie movie. A train approaches the old depot where they are filming, crashes ... and something escapes from one of the cars. Soon after, objects and animals begin to vanish from Lillian. Up to this point, Abrams' script is warm, fuzzy, and refreshing, a throwback to movies like "Stand by Me" and Spielberg's "E.T."

But then the convoluted plot gets in the way. And special effects begin to dominate. And "Super 8" demonstrates that no one can make a Spielberg fantasy anymore -- not even Spielberg, who is one of the producers.

Although it's apparent that money was poured into the making of this film, the motion-capture monster is not at all frightening or convincing, at some points resembling a Ray Harryhausen creation from the early '60s. The story goes from sweet and intriguing to frantic and clichéd.

The zombie movie that the kids had been making has more entertainment value than Abrams's misfire. Unlike the silly alien in this film, Abrams and Spielberg discover that, despite their best efforts, they can't go home again.

Expanded Review At: Grouchyeditor.com