Why on earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs? Sam Peckinpah’s original film released in 1971 is a provocative disconcerting examination of man’s basest impulses. Its violence a source of some controversy when it was released seems relatively tame by today’s standards; its core assertion – that we’re all capable of the most extreme barbarism if pushed far enough – still unnerves. But it was very much a product of its time borne out of the social unrest and political upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The appeal – commercial and otherwise – of a modernized re-telling would seem perilously limited.
In the new version director Rod Lurie (Resurrecting the Champ The Contender) partly refashions Straw Dogs as a ham-fisted allegory for the increasingly acrimonious red state/blue state divide. It is exceedingly clear which side he’s on.
James Marsden plays David Sumner a Hollywood screenwriter who moves with his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) to her hometown of Blackwater Mississippi after her father’s death. Their stay is intended as only temporary long enough for them to prepare the family home for sale and for David to finish his latest screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad.
Blackwater presents more or less the prototypical (i.e. clichéd) Hollywood vision of a rural Deep South town populated with scruffy churlish yokels who instinctively recoil at anything resembling sophistication. Gun racks and confederate flags and “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers abound. David with his vintage Jaguar credit cards and polysyllabic vocabulary incurs immediate resentment. David’s thinly-veiled condescension doesn’t help matters.
Everywhere he goes David is eyed with suspicion and made to feel unwelcome.
Hoping to ingratiate himself with the townsfolk he hires a local construction crew headed by Amy’s handsome ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair a barn damaged during a recent storm. The men prove less-than-stellar workers drinking on the job leaving early to go hunting and brazenly treading about the house as if they own it. Equivocal by nature David is loath to confront them and Charlie and the boys seize on his timidity. Their provocations soon adopt a more sinister face.
Straw Dogs like its predecessor is built around a climactic final “siege” of the Sumner house when David surrounded on all sides by men intent on taking everything he has is finally driven to fight back. But whereas Pekinpah’s film filled the preceding minutes with scene after scene of troubling moral complexity Lurie’s version can only offer unremitting tedium. His Straw Dogs is more than anything else a terminal bore. At 110 minutes it is actually shorter than the original but it feels a good deal longer. Even a pivotal rape scene – in which the victim’s consent is ever-so-briefly implied – and some virtuoso scenery-chewing from James Woods playing an alcoholic ex-football coach can’t breathe much life into this empty mundane film.
I'm in Manhattan on 9/11 and I'm supposed to be writing about Straw Dogs. And in about three hours I'm going to watch the 49ers opening game against the Seattle Seahawks. Because of all that, I've got violence on my mind. There is a world of difference between 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis flattening a Seattle running back and Dustin Hoffman's fictional David Sumner giving in to a repressed murderous rage. And the gap between those moments of violence and what happened on September 11th begs description. It hadn't occurred to me until now the oddness of opening the remake of 1971's Straw Dogs, a movie explicitly about violence, in the week following the 10th anniversary of such a devastating act of violence against the United States. But then again, maybe it makes a certain amount of sense.
Nowadays we see graphic violence depicted with numbing regularity in movies, television programs, video games, and commercials. Pretty much everywhere, all the time. But in 1971 when Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange all came out the cultural critics in America had a to pause for a moment and wonder whether or not it was all just too much.
Unlike the "torture porn" of the Saw franchise and its relatives, that draw on shock as entertaining of titillation, all of those 1971 movies used violence to a specific purporse. Dirty Harry depicted the angry reaction of conservative forces in the wake of the '60s, The French Connection attempted to show the gritty side of policework in documentary style, and A Clockwork Orange with its "ultraviolence" trapped the audience between raging freedom and destructive conformity. But Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs attempted something on a smaller, human scale.
It's often missed that the reason David Sumner moves to his wife's English hometown is to get away from the disruptive college culture he'd been forced to deal with in the United States. David wants to escape even the violence of political demonstrations. It is a rule of emotional physics, not to mention dramatic structure, that whatever we repress only becomes stronger, and David discovers this to his peril. At every turn David tries to repress his violent reactions, his animal nature, and that need to have and protect territory that Peckinpah believes lurks in all our hearts. To Peckinpah, David is the villain of the piece, and all the bad things that happen occur because David's too much of a repressed intellectual to be a complete human, animal nature and all.
The centerpiece of Straw Dogs is the rape of David's wife Amy. It's there for a lot of reasons. It's there to underscore Peckinpah's ideas about animals and territory because, yes, Amy is David's territory. There has been a lot of controversy about the rape sequence in this film because, famously, some critics believe that Peckinpah shows Amy coming to "enjoy" the rape. Part of this comes from the studio recutting the whole rape sequence. The uncut version is much less ambiguous. But what's important for Peckinpah is, in a way, far more insulting, because the point of the scene is that it is the most intimate and awful "taking" of David's "property."
When David finally unleashes his animal rage, and Amy's story rounds itself out, we see Peckinpah's plan reach its terrible end. This is not violence for the sake of violence, this is a movie by a man who has very particular ideas about what violence means for society. What's disturbing about Straw Dogs isn't the violence that's depicted, it's that the violence depicted doesn't offer any solutions. The crime of many violent movies isn't the violence itself, it's telling stories in which violence offers solutions, closure, or peace. Peckinpah, whatever else his flaws, respects violence far too much to mistake its nature.
Today in New York, I can't help thinking about Peckinpah's message. This is a city full of people who know all too intimately that violence cannot bring healing. Neither can revenge. Real healing requires the courage to feel pain, the courage to grow, and the simple passing of time. I only hope that the remake of Straw Dogs has the moral courage of it's classic precursor.
Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and re-conceived by director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas James and the Giant Peach) in 3-D stop-motion animation Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) opens a world of twisted wonder when she passes through a secret door in her new house and suddenly discovers an alternate existence mirroring her own life but making it so much more interesting and satisfying until her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) tries to turn her little visit into a permanent one. Fanning is the ideal Coraline -- curious fickle frightened and determined. She does an excellent job bringing to life this young girl suddenly caught up in an extraordinary adventure that rivals what Dorothy went through on the road to Oz. Hatcher is properly bland as her real mother and slippery as her Other -- she’s clearly having fun ditching Desperate Housewives. Standout is Keith David voicing an exquisitely drawn but quite mysterious Cat. There’s also brief but amusing work from the team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (Absolutely Fabulous) as Coraline’s very very British and very eccentric neighbors and an even wackier Ian McShane as the Russian Mr. Bobinsky. Selick has created a modern classic that tops even his brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas turning the world of Coraline into something we’ve seen before. It’s Alice in Wonderland times 10 but despite its soft PG rating is really dark stuff. Kids won’t be turned off by this but some not-clued-in parents might. The film will be shown in both 3-D and regular formats but go for the 3-D version if possible. It’s a mind-blowing use of the technology and perhaps the best yet put on screen.
September 07, 2004 12:11pm EST
In Paparazzi celebrity photographers are an affliction that torment tens if not dozens of residents of Brentwood the Hollywood Hills and Malibu. Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser) is one such denizen. As Hollywood's brightest new action star Laramie along with his wife Abby (Robin Tunney) is set to enjoy the sweet ride of success until paparazzo Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore) and his marauding band of slimy shutterbugs turn his life into a living hell. Or at least a fairly large inconvenience. With a blatant nod to Princess Di the pesky paparazzi cause a high-speed car wreck which sends Bo's son Zach (Blake Bryan) into a coma of convenient duration and results in the loss of Abby's spleen. Which is fitting as the movie has no discernible spleen of its own. And so our hero who has obviously not received the standard studio briefing on the joys of contract killers takes matters (and a baseball bat) into his own hands. The model for Paparazzi is the vigilante movie: Death Wish Billy Jack Walking Tall and the like. But whereas Bronson's Paul Kersey devolved from architect to cold-blooded killer only when faced with impossibly high stakes (the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter) Laramie by contrast turns into a serial killer and a sloppy one at that over a little retinal glare. And doing it all by himself? One imagines the Anthony Pellicanos of the world dispatching guys like Harper during a Pilates break.
It's problematic asking non-movie stars to play huge movie stars for obvious reasons. Bo Laramie is supposed to be the biggest thing since Ah-nuld held his day job but as Hauser plays him he comes off more like Michael Dudikoff. Even as he's beating paparazzi to death with his own hands there is no sense of a human being or even a movie star being pushed to his limits. Tunney who was terrific in Niagara Niagara has nothing to do and neither does Dennis Farina as the cop conflicted by the A-list avenger. Sizemore of course steals every scene he's in effortlessly and ruthlessly. In spite of his recent legal troubles (or perhaps because of them) he brings just the right dosage of dangerous persona and edgy charisma to his growing roster of manic miscreants. Ultimately though even his involvement is disappointing: When he's on screen he fools you into thinking a real movie is about to start.
First-time director Paul Abascal is but a pawn in Mel Gibson's dogmatic production slate. Screenwriter Forrest Smith had a small role with Gibson in We Were Soldiers and reportedly leveraged the moment to pitch Paparazzi to the actor/producer/Catholic poster boy. Gibson has had issues with his privacy before and has already proved himself shameless in using the movies to promote an agenda. So as with The Passion of the Christ a movie that wouldn't have gotten so much as a sniff at any other studio found itself with a green light. And Bo Laramie became family man/action hero Gibson's violent alter ego. Or maybe just ego. (Gibson also has a brief cameo and the one sheet for Laramie's "movie" Adrenaline Force 2 is a dead ringer for the poster art for Lethal Weapon 2). With Gibson's personal profits alone surpassing the $400 million mark with this week's Passion DVD sales and Paparazzi's budget listed at $20 million Gibson could make 20 sequels to Paparazzi. Or he could use the producer's pulpit to speak out against other vexations in his life. Somewhere at Icon world headquarters Leaf Blower: The Movie just went into pre-production.