Scary and not so scary

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, February 09, 2006


  "When a Stranger Calls" Sony Pictures Classics 1 hour, 23 minutes "Brokeback Mountain" Focus Features 2 hours, 14 minutes

"When a Stranger Calls"

Sony Pictures Classics

1 hour, 23 minutes

"Brokeback Mountain"

Focus Features

2 hours, 14 minutes

This time of the year, in our tiny little market, is when theaters try to squeeze in a few of the many Oscar contenders that they couldn’t be bothered with around Christmas, when they were released. This also is the traditional time of year that Hollywood dumps whatever crud it’s had sitting around for a while, usually with little or no fanfare. In celebration of those two trends, this week we’ll look at two completely different films, one that is scarier than it could have been, and another that’s far less frightening than people probably think.

“When a Stranger Calls” is an odd choice for a remake, until you consider that they’re basically mining every scary movie from the ’70s — it had to come up eventually. Still, the only thing people remember about the original is a frantic cop yelling over the phone to the dumbstruck baby-sitter, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” Frightening, I’ll admit, but with that cat out of the bag, I’m not sure what else this film is supposed to have going for it.

The film opens on a terrifying suburban murder of a baby-sitter and her wards — one you hear rather than see — and, scene dutifully set, we jet on over to Hollywood High. This is not actually a school in the Los Angeles area, but rather my designation for that fantasy school setting that the film set seems to imagine all high schools are like. The cool kids are cooler, the mean kids are meaner. Everyone drinks, sleeps around, goes to fabulous parties, drives expensive cars.

My personal experience, both as a teacher and student, is that high school is far more mundane, but then again I’ve never attended Hollywood High.

Our eager young heroine is Jill Johnson, perky as all get out, but bitter because her best friend was caught kissing her boyfriend. Alert! Is this foreshadowing? Could one of these two be the maniac? Maybe if we had not seen the random killing in the beginning, we could be fooled into thinking that. All the red herrings in this film are pretty obvious.

Anyway, instead of attending the fabulous pep rally bonfire with her friends, Jill gets a cush job baby-sitting in a fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright-esque mansion, conveniently located out in the boonies. It’s a great gig until the creepy phone calls start, and I think you can guess where it goes from there.

For being basically fluff, “Stranger” is actually not a bad film. There’s very little gore, no sex and only minor language, but the director still achieves a frightening mood without making the film feel sanitized. This is mainly achieved through effective use of the house, which is pretty cool. Yes it’s silly, and frequently doesn’t make sense — why do they need a baby-sitter if they have a live-in maid? But for all this, there are some legitimately scary moments, and the story is kept pleasantly simple — almost nostalgically so. It’s one call that’s not too painful to take. Grade: B-

On the other hand, “Brokeback Mountain” is almost nothing but painful. Now, before I get into this, realize I’m no fool. I know this movie’s got a lot of baggage attached to it. There are some who will refuse to see it. There are others who will see it for no other reason than to irritate the ones who won’t see it.

There are those who say that it’s only been so critically lauded (and boy has it, nominations and awards enough to fill a bus) because of the controversy. It’s interesting to witness such a firestorm over what is, at heart, a small, sad little love story.

I’m also not naive. I wouldn’t suggest that you can go to this film and view it simply as a love story and ignore all the controversy surrounding it. I mean, come on, it’s a gay cowboy movie? How many stereotypes are we shattering all at once here?

What I would suggest, if you can give this movie a try, is to look at it as a whole, rather than in pieces. The homosexuality is not meant to be overlooked. It’s integral, but it’s the humanity that drives this beautiful and tragic story.

Ennis and Jack, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively, are young ranch hands in 1963, just looking for work. In one summer watching a herd of sheep up on Brokeback Mountain, they find each other instead. But this is the west in the early 1960s, not Greenwich Village in the summer of love, and there is nowhere this relationship can take them.

They part, and try their best to live “normal” lives. Ennis marries and has two daughters, continuing to ranch hand. Jack also marries: a rodeo queen from money. But it’s true love they are trying to squelch, and eventually it bubbles to the surface, with predictably damaging results.

The best part about this film is the brilliant performances from Ledger and Gyllenhaal. They expertly capture the lives of these two gay men, in a world where such a thing doesn’t exist.

It’s refreshing to finally see homosexuality portrayed in the mainstream media as something other than a punchline.

The characters aren’t swishy or butch, they don’t listen to Barbara Streisand, and the only leather they wear are their boots. They’re just real people, caught up in something they don’t understand.

The direction is typically understated, an Ang Lee trademark. Don’t look for sweeping statements, or broad condemnations. Look instead for a heartbreaking and simple story about two people in love in a time and place that absolutely will not have it, and the lengths they go to try to bridge the gap. Grade: A

“When a Stranger Calls” is rated PG-13 for mild language and intense scares. “Brokeback Mountain” is rated R for some pretty explicit sex scenes, some language and brief violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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