Friday, March 23, 2018


Indeed, “The Strangers: Prey for Night” (** OUT OF ****) arrives ten years later as a belated sequel to writer & director Bryan Bertino’s 2008 horror chiller “The Strangers.”  Although Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) survived in the original “Strangers,” she doesn’t show up for the sequel.  While Bertino received first credit for writing this follow-up film, “Forrest of the Damned” director Johannes Roberts has taken over the helm, and “30 Days of Night: Dark Days” scribe Ben Ketai has contributed to the screenplay.  Mind you, “The Strangers: Prey for Night” lacks the nihilistic artistry of “The Strangers.” Nevertheless, the sequel proves far more satisfying in terms of dramatic closure.  Whereas only Liv Tyler lived in “The Strangers,” two characters escape the knives, ax, and vehicular mayhem in “Prey for Night.”  No, you don’t need to watch “The Strangers” again to appreciate its tardy sequel.  If you do, you may notice certain scenes are replicated here for greater impact.  One of the things that made “The Strangers” such a startling exercise in terror was its violence.  At one point, Kristen’s terrified boyfriend, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) found a shotgun.  Unfortunately, when he wielded it, Hoyt accidentally killed Mike (Glenn Howerton), his best friend.  Since the front door stood ajar, Mike had blundered into the house, and Hoyt mistook Mike for one of the three foes.  Nobody perishes from friendly fire in “Prey at Night.”  The two films share some similarities, but they remain largely different based on their respective settings.  “The Strangers” emphasized claustrophobia because the bedlam occurred in a ranch house in the woods.  The hysterics in “Prey at Night” are not confined to one house.  Instead, the pandemonium rages within an isolated trailer park where only the manager and his wife remain during the off-season.  Ostensibly, the two movies take place after dark, and the predators eventually sabotage all means of communication.  As slick as Johannes Roberts’ direction is, “Prey for Night” amounts to a lukewarm, standard-issue, 1980s slasher saga.  Bits and pieces of the storyline—not the body parts of its slain victims—have been tweaked sufficiently to make it its 85-minute running time tolerable.

In “The “Strangers,” Kristen and James had just gotten home after attending a wedding.  Clearly, they were amorous couple, but they had not set a date for their own wedding.  “The Strangers: Prey at Night” deals with a family in turmoil.  Cindy (Christina Hendricks of “The Neon Demon”) and her husband Mike (Martin Henderson of “Windtalkers”) are driving their problem child daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison of “Just Go with It”), to a boarding school.  Kinsey has a rebellious streak a mile wide.  She wears Goth girl make-up and smokes cigarettes without inhaling them.  All of Kinsey’s girlfriends skip school and participate in activities just as onerous as she did, but their parents haven’t punished them.  Cindy tells her defiant daughter she wishes that her mother could have confronted her problem as she has Kinsey’s.  Mike loads up the mini-van, and they pick up Kinsey’s older brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman of “Battle of the Sexes”), who has been playing baseball with his pals. Naturally, Kinsey and Mike annoy each other during the journey.  Although the family fell behind their scheduled departure, Cindy has left a telephone message for Uncle Marvin at Gatlin Lake Trailer Park that they will be arriving late.  We the audience already suspect this family is headed for an ill-fated rendezvous because the three murderers —the Man in Burlap Mask (Damian Maffei of “Nikos the Impaler,” Dollface (newcomer Emma Bellomy), and Pin-Up Girl (newcomer Lea Enslin)—have broken in on Uncle Marvin and Aunt Sheryl and relieved them off all their worldly anxieties.  Interestingly, this older couple slept with a dog between them, but the canine cowered rather than attacked.

Predictably, Cindy and family don’t have a clue about their impending doom.  They arrive after dark, and Cindy picks up their trailer key from main office.  Of course, nobody greets her.  No sooner have they settled in than somebody knocked at the door.  The knocking itself sound ominous.  Cindy opens it to find a girl standing in darkness on the porch.  The outside light is not shining, so Cindy cannot see the girl’s face.  The girl asks her if Tamara is home.  Cindy disappoints her, and she watches the girl leave.  Stubborn Kinsey refuses to play cards with Cindy and Mike, and she storms out of the trailer to smoke.  Cindy sends Luke after Kinsey.  After the sinister prologue, director Johannes Roberts devotes about thirty minutes acquainting audiences with the family.  They appear average.  The parents are struggling to raise their two children, but one has run off the rails.  If a message lurks in “The Strangers: Prey for Night,” could it be: “think twice about sending your daughters to boarding school?”  Otherwise, Cindy and Mike seem like a model couple with few flaws.

“The Strangers: Prey for Night” differs from its predecessor because its victims enjoy a greater chance of survival. Meantime, the filmmakers have scrupulously observed the rules of the slasher fest.  The masked villains are virtually indestructible.  Some can recover from the worst injuries.  An older man wearing a burlap bag drives them around in a battered Ford pick-up.  He is dressed in a suit and tie.  He favors an ax.  Something about the way an ax sounds as it is dragged across concrete appeals to him.  The two girls prefer kitchen knives.  They display no emotions whatsoever when they maim or slaughter their victims.  The masked dastards in “The Strangers” behaved in similar fashion.  One of Cindy’s family asks her assailant why she is trying to kill her.  “Why not?” the girl utters with a dreamy gaze.  Not surprisingly, when the stabbing starts, the family goes berserk.  They do the usual, foolhardy things victims do.  Everything about “The Strangers: Prey for Night” is hackneyed, but the film adheres to the slasher formula with enough style to make it adequate for a rental.


"Hellboy" director Guillermo del Toro and scenarist Travis Beacham have caught Michael Bay and his "Transformers" franchise napping with the release of "Pacific Rim" (*** OUT OF ****). This entertaining but formulaic nonsense amalgamates science fiction with horror in an apocalyptic adventure epic that pits humans piloting giant robots against "Godzilla" type monsters from another universe. Imagine "Godzilla" meets "Robot Jox," and you'll have a good idea what to anticipate from "Pacific Rim." When you aren't laughing yourself silly at the doomsday premise of mankind tangling with alien behemoths from another galaxy, you may find yourself caught up in the bombastic, larger-than-life action. Basically, "Pacific Rim" amounts to a slug fest between towering robots and amphibious leviathans that attack each other on both land and sea. Just because you haven't swamped a bathtub lately with a rubbery ducky in one fist and a huge plastic robot in the other doesn't mean that you won't enjoy this boisterous Armageddon. Comparatively, between the heroic humans and the "Jurassic Park" influenced monsters, del Toro creates more urban destruction than both "The Avengers" and "Man of Steel." Skyscrapers topple like dominos, and gigantic creatures rampage through a number of largely populated Pacific rim properties like tornadoes. In the hands of a talent lesser than del Toro, who also helmed "Blade 2," "Pacific Rim" might not have been so amusing. The film's biggest asset isn't the impressive CGI gargantuan combatants, but its cheeky sense of humor. Meantime, the biggest problem this outlandish epic contends with is its largely unknown cast. Aside from veterans like Ron Pearlman and Idris Elba, who support rather than lead, nobody qualifies as a celebrity superstar. Charlie Hunnam has made one above-average thriller "Deadfall" and appeared in 70 episodes of "Sons of Anarchy" as Jackson 'Jax' Teller. Anybody who liked Steve McQueen will notice a stunning resemblance between Hunnam and the "Bullitt" star. Hunnam has all of McQueen's physical movements down, but his hair looks a mite long. Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi plays Hunnam's feisty co-star, and they wind up sharing more than merely physical space in this rock 'em sock 'em yarn. The beauty of unknowns in a mega-budget movie like "Pacific Rim" is that you're never certain who is going to survive.

This fast-paced, live-wire, sci-fi spectacle takes place about seven years from now in 2020. The worst thing that we face as a society then isn't suicidal terrorists. Instead, it's the Kaiju, massive, dinosaur-like, creatures from another dimension that emerge from a breach in the ocean floor to stomp the smithereens out of San Francisco, Manila and Cabo San Lucas. Initially, mankind tried out conventional weapons on these supernatural mega-beasts. Unfortunately, more powerful weapons were required to repulse these pugnacious leviathans. All the scenes with the monsters trashing cities will evoke memories of the original Japanese Godzilla movies as well as the 1998 American remake starring Matthew Broderick. Eventually, mankind cooperates on a global basis and constructs huge, 25-foot high, humanoid metal com-bots with cannons and lasers called ‘Jaegers.’ Two pilots in tandem operate these man-made monsters with each acting as opposing neural hemispheres. Like the monsters, the Jaegers can 'take a licking and keep on ticking' in the drink as well as on dry land. The pilots don space suits, wield their two minds as one in "Star Trek" mind-meld fashion, and control their robot from a sophisticated Wii platform built into the head-piece of the hulk. Two pilots are essential for a Jaeger because one pilot cannot perform the tasks mandatory without suffering long-term, nose-bleeding, side-effects. When these robots are prepared for combat, both pilots must establish a neural link between their minds so their memories and consciousness are bonded together by inboard hardware. As it turns out, Earth succeeds in deterring their creatures. Nevertheless, the Kaiju haven't tossed in the celestial towel. They storm back for one final fracas, and the best of the Jaegers confront them in a life and death clash in the north Alaskan Seas. Brothers Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff of "After Earth") and Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam of “Sons of Anarchy) wade into icy waters against the orders of their superior, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba of "Thor"), to save a fishing vessel from the Kaiju. This Kaiju has a surprise in store for them when it rips the head-piece off the Jaeger and pulls Raleigh's brother Yancy out. Stunned and injured during the toe-to-toe fray, Raleigh manages to bring the Jaeger home and quits the program. He is a hull of his former self now that his brother is gone. The Jaeger program isn't far from extinct itself. The powers that be have decided walls are the answer to the Kaiju. Every metropolis on the Pacific rim sets out to erect impenetrable walls. Unfortunately, nobody told the Kaiju, and they smash through these immense walls as if they were built of styrofoam. Stacker searches for Raleigh and finds him toiling on a wall. Later, he introduces him to Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), and they assure Raleigh he can drive another Jaeger. Stacker's scientists, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day of "Horrible Bosses") and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman of "Layer Cake"), are furiously working on ways to destroy these creatures when Mako announces she is the ideal candidate to help Raleigh pilor a Jaeger. Stacker is initially hesitant to let her to double team with Raleigh, but she wins him over to her side.

"Pacific Rim" boasts more than just a bunch of robots battling prehistoric monsters. Braying like a jackass, Charlie Day steals the show as an insane scientist who resembles Christian Slater crossed with Rick Moranis. Burn Gorman and he have a field day playing psychotic scientists. At one point, Dr. Geiszler decides to mind-meld with a fragment of a Kaiju's brain and realizes that Stacker's strategy of using a Jaeger to drop a nuclear device down the Pacific Ocean portal from where the monsters hail from isn't going to succeed. "Pacific Rim" qualifies as a monster of a mash.

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.”