Amoeblog

The Strangers

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 4, 2008 01:56pm | Post a Comment



The other night I went to see The Strangers with my favorite person, Ngoc Nguyen. The film begins with a caveat, "The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on February 11, 2005, are still not entirely known." We are also told that the film is "inspired by actual events." Those inspirational events most likely included watching Helter Skelter and maybe Fatal Vision. But the "based on actual events" gimmick is a tried and true one; and one indicative of The Stranger's formula-following strengths and weaknesses.



Is there anything scarier than hippies?


One guy went to the trouble of mapping the address given in the film and many others have taken the opening claim as truth. I'll try to help by adding that I heard the cry of a Great Horned Owl at several points and I've included this handy map of their range so that we can narrow it down further.

      

In interviews, speaking of his influences and tastes, first time director Bryan Bertino praises The Blair Witch Project ("I'm one of the people who loved The Blair Witch Project. I don't care that the camera is shaky and Heather says f**k a lot"), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Descent. He also mentions John Cassavetes and Terence Malick, whose work is reflected in the main characters' strained relationship and the film's measured pacing. By and large Bertino succeeds in creating a low budget '70s vibe. The summer home (a ranch home, naturally) is furnished in heavy, brown furniture and lit by 15 watt bulbs (apparently the owners are either photosensitive or very energy conscious). Crackly records of Gillian Welch, Joanna Newsom and Merle Haggard play. It almost feels like a Pinter play or a Bob Rafelson drama.

The film story begins (like last year's not-entirely-dissimilar Vacancy) with a couple traveling in a car-- their feelings for each other obviously strained but not entirely explained. As the preceding events become more clear, the tension slowly and expertly builds on the viewer's anticipation of something awful. Nothing happens and yet we know something will. Nothing new here, but it's well done and sticks to the thriller formula closely so it works.



Unfortunately, when the villains show up, the film switches gears.  Whilst maintaining the slow pacing that worked in the first half, in the second it works to the film's detriment. The villains seem designed with more the toy market in mind than to create terror. The cutesy nickname given them by the filmmakers are
Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and The Man in the Mask. The girls have Mark Ryden-inspired masks that seem completely out-of-place. The Man in the Mask lumbers around like Leatherface and wears a sack like pre-hockey mask Jason or Bubba Ritter (Dark Night of the Scarecrow the Phantom Killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown or the Zodiac Killer) which, to his credit, is one of the scarier looks available to psychopathic killers although not terribly original.

 

Bertino has also named Alien as an influence. But in Alien, a lot of the fear was created by never seeing the alien clearly or for too long. In The Strangers, the ample screen time the villains are afforded allows us to grow comfortable, even bored with them. The viewer also has too much time to question the painfully obvious contrivances necessary to maintain an unrealistic situation in which two languid teenage girls and an overweight asthmatic effectively terrorize a couple with a 12 gauge. The couple's actions become maddeningly nonsensical and unlikely. This could be chalked up to following formula too closely too, I guess. After all, many horror-thrillers have become unintentionally dull when the initial tension is replaced by goofy, obnoxious antagonists, as in The Hills Have Eyes.

It's too bad that it takes such a predictable and unfortunate turn into the over-the-top territory. What made the first half so enjoyable is that it avoided being like the film it becomes in the second half. But, despite some disappointment, it's a better-than-average exercise in suspense that may stick with you for an evening but it's not something you'll likely go back to.

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Happy Turtle Day

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 23, 2008 01:19am | Post a Comment

At Amoeba Hollywood we've been kicking around the idea of a Reptilesploitation sub-section in horror. Whilst it's easy to think of several killer crocodilian movies or films featuring man-eating-snakes, it's proven much harder to think of any featuring turtle terrors or lethal lizards. But the occasion of  World Turtle Day has given me reason to think harder. Maybe they aren't horror films, but any of these are a great way to celebrate this Testudinal holiday.

There's a whole series of Gamera films brought to you from those crazy guys over at the Daiei Motion Picture Studio.


And who can forget those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles- a group of heroes in half-shells named after a group of 16th century homosexuals and led by a sewer rat. What's the text about the subtext called?


         

I'm sure you heard about the giant turtle at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Until now it was thought to be extinct until he (or she) has made some appearances recently... which is supposed to portend something big. Here's some footage accompanied by the kind of  Vietnamese music you'll never hear at Ginger Grass.


We also have an large selection of titles featuring the calm, chill adventures of that lovable, well-behaved Canadian Turtle, Franklin, as introduced in this appropriately folky theme.


Maybe the alligator snapper will capture your fancy. Fear of these made me stop swimming in the pond as a kid after I saw a garden variety snapper chomp a twig the size of a broom in half. Think about how many tender parts you have that nature's second strongest jaws could snip!
 
Here's a scene from a documentary detailing one Missourian's efforts to save the second largest freshwater turtle by dragging them out of the muck and throwing them unceremoniously in front of some improbably-mutton-chopped philosopher.

And who says turtles can't make good adversaries? Just watch these two behemoths clash! How would you like to get powned by one of these testy tortoises?

 

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California Fool's Gold -- Exploring San Marino

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 29, 2008 03:00pm | Post a Comment
This entry in a series about Los Angeles County communities is about San Marino. To vote for more communities, click here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here.

San Marino is located in the San Gabriel Valley and is neighbored by Pasadena and San Pasqual to the north, East Pasadena and East San Gabriel to the east, Alhambra and San Gabriel to the south, and South Pasadena to the east.

 
                             Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Maps of San Marino

San Marino (aka Chan Marino - thanks to Ngoc for that tidbit) is a tiny, affluent city nestled in the San Gabriel Valley which comes in at number 48 on the list of America's least-affordable places to live.  Its homes were mostly built in the second quarter of the 20th century and are in a fairly wide variety of styles-- some are actually pretty low key. Monterey Park may've been envisioned as the "Beverly Hills of East L.A." by its planners, but surely San Marino has more right to the comparison than other Easterly cities and neighborhoods. It has often, on TV and film, subbed as the West Side, East Coast or just a nice, anonymous neighborhood in such timeless, Hollywood classics as Mr & Mrs. Smith,  Monster-In-Law,  One Hour Photo, American Wedding, Men In Black II,  and television episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the Office, The West Wing and Alias. Despite the fact that in films and TV it is used to portray genteel, white neighborhoods, in reality most of the population is Chinese-American, which is why people jokingly refer to it as Chan Marino. The population is currently 47% Asian (mostly Taiwanese and Chinese), 44% white (mostly English) and 5% Latino.

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May Is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 28, 2008 04:19pm | Post a Comment
ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH

Even in a multicultural, polyglot city like Los Angeles (which has the largest population of Asian-Americans (1.4 million) in the country and where the percentage of the population which is Asian-American is roughly twice that which is black) most discussions of race appear continue to be framed in the outmoded, bipolar terms of  black and white.  For example, whereas a lot of people and many organizations honor Black History Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is by comparison almost completely unrecognized except by some Asian-American organization and individuals.

The centuries-long struggle and strife of blacks in America is well-documented and worth honoring -- many have suggested that Black Americans invented the Civil Rights Movement (some Native Americans might take issue with that). Asians, like other non-whites, have also been subjected to legal segregation, racist violence, widespread discrimination and harassment. So why is it that the Asian-American experience is so... obscure? I hadn't even heard of its existence until I was hipped to it by reknowned Asian-American rights activist, Ngoc-thu Thi Nguyen.


CONTINUED PREJUDICE AGAINST ASIAN-AMERICANS

According to polls, 23% of Americans are admittedly "uncomfortable" voting for an Asian-American to be President of the United States. This is in contrast to 15% compared with an African-American candidate and 14% compared with a (presumably non-Asian) female candidate. Just as many Americans used to fear that Catholics ultimate allegiance was to the pope, a lot of Asians are suspected and viewed of holding allegiances the Asian countries of their ancestors, a view which fuels the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype.


PERPETUAL FOREIGNERS

Asian-Americans are typically descended from more recent immigrants than the white or black population. Last year, coming up with movies to showcase for APA Heritage Month resulted in the suggestion of Chinese Kung Fu movies the distinction between Asians in Asia and Asians in America remains a lot harder for non-Asians than distinguishing African-Americans from Africans or white people from Europeans partly because America loves imported Asian movies and Korean dramas but Hollywood continues to be incredibly uncomfortable with Asian-American leads or ensembles. To date there've only been a handful of Asian-American television series. Even more troubling to me is the fact that many Asian-Americans born in America speak of "American food" and "Americans" as something separate and exclusive of themselves.


BIPOLAR DISCUSSIONS OF RACE 

America's understanding and discussion of racial issues has almost always been overwhelmingly and frustratingly bipolar.  Look at the focus of most conversations about the current Democratic Party elections despite the fact that Asian-Americans are second only to Jews in their per capita political donations. This simple and distorted view exists despite the fact that other groups, such as Asians and Native Americans, have always been central to our country's history. The conversation has always been and remains, still, "black and white."


THE MODEL MINORITY

Asians are often paternalistically referred to as the "model minority" -- a special minority position that seems to involve the allowance of systematic marginalization. It's like saying "here's a gold star for not rocking the boat. We wish all minorities were so well-behaved." It suggests that (even though Asian immigration is growing at the highest percentage of any racial group) the fact that Asian-Americans are the least likely racial group to report crimes against themselves is to be commended. And even though rare modern instances of blackface provoke outrage, yellowface (whether literal or metaphorically practiced by Asian-American actors reduced to playing into stereotypes) is still not a big deal.


NON-MODEL MINORITY ASIANS

I have to assume that the term "model minority" doesn't  apply to all Asian-Americans, right? As a whole, Southeast Asian people including Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Filipinos and Hmong in the United States are, socio-economically speaking, much more aligned with Native Americans, Blacks, and Latinos. Anecdotally speaking, they seem less likely to be fetishized by both pop culture (appearing in advertisments, films and TV less often than East Asians) and non-Asian exoticists struck with so-called "Yellow Fever." And what of South Asians? For whatever reason, if one speaks of Asian-Americans of South Asian ancestral origin as being Asian-Americans (which they, of course, are), many non-Asians will react with confusion or even attempt to correct you. Anyway, enough of my musings on race... here's a brief history of Asian-American Immigration to the Americas.


*****

TIMELINE OF ASIANS IN THE AMERICAS




CIRCA 15000 BCE

A group of proto-Asian hunters walks from Northern Asia to the Americas on a land bridge.


   
Inupiaq dancer                    Yupik girl                      Inuit girls                   Alutiiq dancer                  Aleut boy

CIRCA 5000 BCE

The last great wave of prehistoric migration from northern Asia to the Americas. These settlers go on to develop into the Inupiaq, Yupik, Inuit, Alutiiq, and Aleut peoples (among others).


   

Heritage Day at the Heritage Square Museum

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 5, 2008 03:20pm | Post a Comment
This past Sunday at the Heritage Square Museum in Highland Park it was L.A. Heritage Day, which I checked out, accompanied by the always scintillating Ngoc Nguyen. The Heritage Square Museum is a "living museum" made up of some Victorian buildings saved from impending demolition that was begun in the 1960s. All the homes were moved from their foundations and transported to their current home in Highland Park. Some of the buildings are still pretty rundown and, as money comes in, are restored. My sister and I used to play a game on road-trips where we'd try to spot rundown houses with trees poking through the roofs and cry out, "That's your honeymoon house!"  The idea is that honeymooning in a run-down house would be rather humorously outrageous. Of us siblings, only my sister has been married so far and I don't think she did end up honeymooning in a dilapidated mansion. Anyway, our parents responded by creating the "Quiet Contest."


        One of the more colorful Victorian homes.                              A Victorian teenager posing in front of the chapel.

Because of fire code, so the story goes, all of the second (and third, in the case of the hexagonal house) stories of these fine buildings are off limits except to the volunteers. One of the costumed guides complained how silly that was since there is no danger of fire in the homes. However, another guide said that two of the original buildings burned down after being moved to Heritage Square. Probably some punk kids out for kicks, but who knows?


   A docent and I in my Zodiac shirt.       It's like a giant cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and...

In addition to the Victorian homes, there's a church, a carriage house, a train station and some train cars. The museum has a myspace page and activist/actor George Takei is in their top 16. I was once on Olvera Street and I recognized GeorgeTakei's distinct, pleasant voice asking, "Should I stand here?" whilst posing next to a fake donkey for some tourists.

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