RIORI Vol 3, Installment 41: Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” (2011)

 


Straw Dogs


The Players…

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgärd and James Woods, with Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell and Laz Alonso.


The Story…

Who says you can’t go home again? Well, that’s exactly what David and Amy aim to do.

After her father’s passing, Amy inherited his house in rural Mississippi. So she and David uprooted themselves from LA to start a new life away from the trappings of crowded, urban blight. It should prove to be an idyllic life, hopefully mending a rift in their tenuous marriage.

It’s unfortunate that the locals don’t cotton well to city slickers. It’s also unfortunate that Amy’s old high school sweetheart Charlie’s been bitten by the green-eyed monster. It’s really unfortunate that David isn’t a football fan.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave home behind. Far, far behind.


The Rant…

Okay, sorry it took so long to get around to this week’s mashup. For reasons I will explain later, the gap in time between Red Dragon and Straw Dogs is due to my cinematic ignorance.

*gasps*

Yeah, despite all my charms, trivia and thousands of hours wasted watching movies instead of doing something really productive (like finding the cure for rectal cancer and/or Rob Schneider), even I fall out of the loop once in a while. Hey, you can’t be expected to see everything, especially since movies have been around for, what, at least 30 years? That’s a lotta VHS to unfurl. Besides, my NES ain’t gonna play itself and Yoshi’s getting hungry.

What?

So, no. I haven’t seen everything. Working on it, but it’s a long road to walk. It takes patience, undying curiosity and some moronic drive to keep at a blog like this. Lots of potholes. Sometimes there are a few setbacks. Like what, you may ask? For the first time I ain’t talking ’bout a movie you should not view near an open flame holding a Molotov cocktail. Worse.

I’m talking about remakes.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Yeah, I feel the same way. See, Hollywood’s gone remake happy over the past decade. With greater and greater diminishing returns, BTW. Don’t misunderstand me; remakes of classic films have their place, even not so classic films. But as I pointed on in my I Am Legend installment, things can get out of hand. I cited with that remake review that in 2004 alone (you know, over a f*cking decade ago), there were about 40 remakes, sequels or prequels churned out. Even the Coen brothers got in on the act back then.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Who had the asparagus? Anyway, I ask myself: what gives? What’s with all these unoriginal films? Was there really a demand for Total Recall ver 2.0? What about that Spider-Man reboot a mere three years after the last one? The new RoboCop anyone? Surprise, surprise, I have a few theories. Pull up a chair.

*screaming, rending of okay you get it*

For one, I think remakes are somewhat cheaper to produce than original movies. Not in budget per se, but I’m willing to wager a silk pyjama that it’s quicker to churn out an adaptation of a previously penned, established storyline. I highly doubt we had a scenarist burning lean tissue into the night pumping out the script for the fresher, shinier The Fog or Halloween (sorry, Mr Zombie). There was already an outline. Color by numbers and fill in the blanks, and pray the audience is either curious enough to see the train wreck or ignorant of the original.

That leads to my second premise. Never in the history of the human race have we been so blessed with so much immediate, instant access to info as we have now. And people are dumber than ever for it. The number one Internet search in 2015? Funny animal pictures. Screw mapping the human genome, Angry Cat needs its own movie! On Lifetime, for f*ck’s sake! We have the history of the world at our fingertips, and the butt end of Gen X into the Millenials don’t know jack.

It makes for good business. Hollywood is doubtless aware of this social learning curve (or gap, as it were), and lately have hedged their bets on the public’s willful ignorance to drop slop done before—some sh*t that was only middling the first time out—and wait for the dollars to ooze in. And cross their fingers anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 do not have Netflix streaming, YouTube or any of Leonard Maltin’s film guides. Can’t be many with those kicking around, right?

Most moviegoers have attention spans of gnats with ADHD. With so much media saturation, surely Tinsel Town can get away with slipping us a mickey now and again. Like every summer. And winter. Sometimes fall, too. Only spring before Daylight Savings take effect. Folks got so much stimulus bombarding their brainpans—I repeat, Hollywood is keenly aware of this—that a virus uploaded into the palsied minds of casual movie fans is a safe bet for some fast cash. Hollywood Trojan horses these needless remakes to empty the uninformed pockets. And the hell of it, this wouldn’t be an issue of most of these remakes were actually ripe for revision, let alone good. The many my idiot self has seen over the past decade have been neither.

Of course there have been exceptions. But before I get to my limited, hopelessly biased list permit me to enlighten you further about the nature of remakes. Here, put on this pair of Depends. Right. My take is this: if a director/writer gets a wild hair up their ass and feel the need to boldly go where someone has gone before, they sure as sh*t better have something new to add to the mix. You can’t just do boilerplate. You can’t just connect the dots. And you not to have any delusions of homage ricocheting about your vodka and blow addled imagination (I’m not saying such directors are addicts. I’m not saying they’re not, either. If the spoon fits use it).

A director and/or scenarist must give their unique spin to the original product. Either enhance the storyline, rely on an impeccable casting director or simply put a signature stamp on the final product, wrapped up in a nice, neat, tasteful package that actually brings something fresh to the table. It’s been done before, and maybe can be done again. Lately though? I have my doubts.

Some cool remakes over the past few years? Glad you asked. Here, let me loosen those restraints a bit. Okay, let’s play compare and contrast. You learned math in elementary school, right? Same rules.

Scorsese’s The Departed (which won Best Picture in 2006. Marty’s apology Oscar, BTW) was lifted from a Chinese gangland flick called Infernal Affairs. Besides Scorsese’s signature stamp, the film worked well thanks to the tight performances from DiCaprio and Nicholson (Jack’s best sh*t in years if you ask me). We also had Ocean’s 11, also under the helm of solid director Soderbergh and the charms of Clooney and Co. Hell, even the 1996 take on The Birdcage was wild, wooly and witty. These are but a scattered few winners.

But despite my focus on recent remakes, there are quite a few notable flicks remade well prior to the Internet generation. I mean, hey, did you know The Wizard Of Oz was done four times? It’s true. The first was a silent version. The next was a talkie, but sans the high tunage and technicolor extravaganza that we got with Judy Garland and her amazing pipes for the third, definitive version (and let’s not forget The Wiz, awash in R&B and overtones of urban blight).

Casablanca was done three times. Not including the iconic classic, the source material was the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was done twice before Elsa got on that plane. Michael Curtiz’ masterpiece almost didn’t get made, BTW. Something about lousy casting or something. What do I know?

We had The Front Page against His Girl FridayThe Man Who Knew Too Much was done by Hitch twice (three times if you remember Billy Bob Thorton’s effort). Seven Samurai got morphed into The Magnificent SevenThe Hidden Fortess borne Star Wars: A New HopeThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly wrought Yojimbo. The list goes on.

Another aspect of the remake hangs on the wobbly pretense of basing films on pre-exisiting texts. I’ve seen three interpretations of Hamlet on the silver screen (two with casting mistakes of Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh portraying the titular tragic hero. Hamlet was a teen. Gibson was straight off the Lethal Weapon train. He was way too old for that sh*t). Speaking of Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet has numerous incarnations. Not just Shakespeare but a lot of great films were lifted from great literature. Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was adapted for Apocalypse Now. Bloch’s Psycho became flesh by Hitchcock (and we’re gonna ignore the frame by f*cking frame remake with a miscast Vince Vaughn). And the last time we were out, we were introduced to Hannibal Lecter’s salad days via Manhunter and Red Dragon, both based on Thomas Harris’ novel.

It’s fortitudinous really that Red Dragon was the previous whipping boy at RIORI. It makes a good companion piece to this week’s beauty and ruin, this Straw Dogs remake. Remember eons back when I said I haven’t watched everything? Before I watched Red Dragon I had already seen Manhunter many years prior. If you read the installment, I felt compelled to compare the older version with the new one. Directors Mann and Ratner brought different meals to the table, their own visions. Both were good, but markedly different. I had read Red Dragon miles before I saw the films, and dug each version’s unique take.

I never read Straw Dogs‘ source material, Gordon Williams’ The Seige Of Treacher’s Farm. Didn’t have immediate access to it. F*ck, never knew the film(s) were based on it until the end credits. More importantly, regarding the viewing of Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs—

(here it comes)

—I never saw Sam Peckinpah’s original. I can’t see everything. I heard about the original with the Director’s Cut reissue in Entertainment Weekly back in the mid-90s (when I still read that rag), and the plot intrigued me. But I lived in a cultural armpit of Pennsylvania, and Netfilx didn’t exist and the local Blockbuster was stocked to the rafters with endless copies of Ghost, so I missed that bus. But like I said at the beginning of this screed, know that Lurie’s version was a remake, and me never seeing the original, and me being well-versed with Manhunter serving as a tonic to my Red Dragon review, I decided I’d be remiss in my duties to take apart Lurie’s version without being acquainted with Peckinpah’s film. So I took the time to sit down and watch the original. A copy of Williams’ Siege wasn’t to be found at the library as a control, either. Which explains the delay in churning out this installment regarding Lurie’s “vision.”

Despite patience being a virtue, I think I might’ve made a big mistake…


City life isn’t for everyone. David and Amy Sumner (Marsden and Bosworth, respectively) quietly fled crowded, polluted LA to Amy’s family home in rural Mississippi. They want an idyll life, far from the stress and strain of the West Coast.

Speaking of strain, their marriage is an uneasy relationship. It’s reflected in their move, as well as a change in direction. David’s a screenwriter, tired of playing the Hollywood game. He throws himself into a new, personal project: a historical documentary, miles away from the glitz he tiredly has churned out. Amy focuses on the restoration of her late dad’s homestead, as well as rediscovering her roots.

Speaking of roots, the locals don’t take kindly to outsiders. David’s viewed as some Calfornia “cream puff” and Amy is little more than eye candy. Especially to Charlie (Skarsgärd), her old flame from their high school days. As more or less a favor, Charlie and his crew have been hired to help Amy achieve her dream by restoring the barn adjacent to the antebellum mansion. This permits Charlie and his cronies ample time to ogle Amy and intimidate David.

Speaking of intimidation, what starts out as an tenuous relationship with Charlie and the locals slowly escalate into psychological warfare. They don’t like wussy David. They want Amy on a platter. They want them gone. Who needs some f*ggoty Hollywood sh*t mucking about town? He don’t even like football. And how the f*ck did he score that blonde cupcake? Charlie and his buds have malice on their minds, and the Sumners need to be taught a lesson and chased out of the f*cking county as fast as f*ck as possible. Or else.

Speaking of else—

The Sumners don’t wanna know what else…


After watching this version of Straw Dogs, I performed an about face and checked out the original. I told you all that. I’m telling you this again for a good reason. About halfway through Peckinpah’s version, I paused it. I was mad. I was mad not about the quality of the 1971 version, which was intriguing. And outright I’ll say Dustin Hoffman made for a much more interesting David than Cyclops did (big shocker there), as well as rural Cornwall as setting. No. I was mad because Lurie’s version was identical to Peckinpah’s. Not slightly. Not passingly. Completely.

Like I said earlier, if you’re gonna do a remake of a classic film you sure as sh*t better bring some twists and turns to story. Otherwise, you have a Gus van Zant travesty on your hands, and a lot of dissatisfied (thinking) movie fans. Rage and ruin. Overturned popcorn buckets. Bitching like mine. Screaming. Rending of garments. Passive pee covering the theatre floor. You thought it was sticky already? Boy, howdy.

Sorry.

Lurie’s Dogs was less of an homage and more like a rip-off, but it wasn’t a total loss. Quite the contrary, at least until the second act (more on that later). At the outset though, the film had nice rising action. There was some good, icky tension between Charlie and company with the Sumners. The whole feeling of unwelcome was palpable, and made me cringe in the best way possible. The menace was there, with Skarsgärd operating with smarm and disdain disguised as Southern Hospitality. Upping that ante was a signature, over-the-top performance of James Woods as redneck ringleader Coach Hadden (with my takedown of White House Down, Woods always makes for an exceptional villain with his shuck and jive, interspersing humor within his odious shenanigans).

The tech stuff was in there where it mattered, too. The editing was smooth, almost seamless along with steady camera work. The soundtrack was great, really highlighting the tension. The landscape was beautiful; give that location scout a hug. All these things worked well.

But only so far.

I fast learned by watching Peckinpah’s film that Lurie’s version was missing the point. 2011’s Dogs was ostensibly meant to be an extension of Peckinpah’s meditation on violence and how the kindest of people could resort to desperate measures. Instead, we get violence for its own sake here. There’s too much of a Hollywood stamp: shock and awe as a substitute for substance. Days of the true psychothriller are gone. If one happens to pop up unexpectedly, the media practically lunges at it like a starving tiger. In the meantime we get a lot of flash, dash and viscera to keep the masses entertained. Truth be told, Lurie’s Dogs didn’t quite follow that line, but the movie felt as if scene upon scene was staged for some sort of explosion later on. There was no slow build after act two. The delivery was halting, and began to lose steam. There’s a difference between foreshadowing and Kafka’s Gun theory and setting up your marks. Like I said, a remake like this hung its bets on an audience not in the know to sell tickets.

That and the help of a very pretty cast.

That’s the major crime here in Dogs. Our dramatis personae. The acting is rather stiff, and our leads are horribly miscast (save Woods, who chews so much scenery it’s a wonder he’s not crapping out drywall). Dogs relies more on name recognition and face value than a coherent ensemble. This is especially true regarding True Blood‘s Skarsgärd. I have to admit—and I am straight as an arrow, regardless what the wifey believes—his Adonis-like looks and build are distracting, and doesn’t a country bumpkin make. Even when he’s being sinister Skarsgärd lacks menace, and that lack made for a very late-in-the-show unconvincing heavy, as well as the cheesiest REDACTED scene ever (the original’s scene made me want to puke, if that tells you anything). The final execution feels like a sick teen comedy. Minus the rococo angst.

Yes, I actually wrote that line. Back to the prettiness.

Marsden is totally out of his element here. In the original, Hoffman’s David is a nerd to be sure, but he’s also wary about his circumstances. He carried an air of suspicion. Marsden by contrast is just clueless. He keeps asking for it from the locals. Over and over and over again, as a square peg to a trapezoidal hole. It doesn’t take long until wanna smack him, over and over again more than the rednecks who’ve targeted him. Sure, his naiveté works with great humor in the first act, but the joke is old by the second. His innocence is ultimately not endearing. He doesn’t engender sympathy. He’s hollow and stereotypical. He didn’t even shoot lasers from his eyes. Gyp.

Even though I’m not a fan of Marsden’s and Skarsgärd’s acting, they weren’t dull. Stereotypes maybe, poor fits both, but even with their faults they did sh*t. Bosworth (of whom I am not a fan period) is so passive it’s almost as if she’s not there. Frankly, at this point in the game I felt any other actress would’ve fit the bill. Pick one. Anyone. Just make sure they have a little confidence and not screaming potential victim. I mean, it’s inevitable bad things are going to happen Amy. I just don’t want to see it coming a light-year away.

Okay. And now for something completely different. Ignoring its flaws, Lurie’s interpretation was, in all honesty, not that bad. Barring the whole second act thing I keep flogging, the movie as a whole was entertaining. It’s not like a “more than the sum of its parts” scenario. But everything hung together pretty well for the most part. Again like the dichotomy of Red Dragon was made to entertain while The Silence Of The Lambs was made to penetrate, both Dogs follow that mold. Peckinpah’s film was awash in social commentary. Lurie’s film simply hoped to thrill. I am loathe to admit it did, despite the poor cast and graphic violence for shock’s sake. The original film was far cleaner in its execution. Only by act three the fit hits the shan. Lurie’s aforementioned icky tension shows the movie’s hand too soon. It would’ve been better with a slower build up and less of that scene building.

In sum, the message of violence here in Dogs gets a bit too on the nose for Lurie’s interpretation. I hate to keep comparing apples to kumquats, but the original film was about “chronicling the beast within.” Lurie’s film just can’t wait to blood butter everything. Meaning breathe it in, punk. There’s an after school message here. A blood-soaked message to be sure, which in turn hides the true meaning of Dogs. What began with good, icky tension ends up with forced, cloying suspense. It’s like a timer went off, and stuff quits making sense. Sh*t descends into mediocrity. Even though there are (vague) motives for the locals to target the Sumners, said motives never really gel. Despite the obvious machinations put into motion, you walk away with “Huh?” Does this movie want to endear contempt for everyone involved? If you can’t get behind anyone then when the climax hits it lands with a fizzle, not a roar. Like I said, at least Hoffman was interesting. Marsden needs a spanking.

This movie ultimately made me feel scummy, like I needed a shower afterwards. It wasn’t the violent climax that upset me. It was the message, glorifying violence. Don’t misunderstand me. I like a decent splatter flick on occasion as well as the next idjit, but a little depth wouldn’t hurt neither. At the end of it all, Lurie’s Dogs remake initially had a lot going for it. Really. I dug it until…well, you know. Its undoing (besides the floundering cast) was reveling in sex and violence, with nary a whit of irony. Some films embrace this, sometimes with a modicum of success. Some of them even remakes, too. One out of three ain’t bad for this Dogs.

But hey, Lurie’s take had zydeco music. That’s sumpin’ different at the table.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A reluctant relent it, and it’s a real shame, too. Here was chance to make a remake about a vital topic. Instead we get Hollywood’s idea of depth. Lurie did an admirable job, just not a respectful one. If you gotta watch it, watch both.


Stray Observations…

  • “You know what? I’m gonna drive.”
  • Hipster music. What better way to alienate oneself from the Skynyrd lovin’ locals?
  • “Thought you was off duty.”
  • Marsden may be a nebbish, but Bosworth is a stick.
  • “Sorry ’bout Flutie.” Keep the change.
  • All of a sudden David becomes John McClane. Zydeco can do that to you.
  • “Shoot anyone that isn’t me.”
  • Stalingrad. I get it, I get it.

Next Installment…

I got a feeling that this film titled Project X has nothing to do with experimental, super smart chimps. Monkey business maybe, but no chimps. Broderick reference!


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