Friday, August 11, 2017
(November 2012, U.S.)
As much as I hate to start out with a negative attitude about anything I write on my blog, especially a James Bond film, let me get this off my chest right now. Perhaps the worst thing about the franchise every since Daniel Craig took over the role of the legendary English spy (besides QUANTUM OF SOLACE!) is that the movie poster designs really suck! Honestly, they're uninteresting, unmotivating and contain virtually no admirable artwork for the eyes or the senses. In fact, I haven't really liked any of the James Bond movie posters since THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, and that was thirty years ago (Happy 30th anniversary, by the way). All negativity aside, however, SKYFALL not only coincides perfectly to mark the 50th anniversary since the launch of the franchise in 1962 with DR. NO, but it also redeems Daniel Craig's position as Bond after the disastrous QUANTUM OF SOLACE (sorry, but I had to mention that again). As director, Sam Mendes of AMERICAN BEAUTY and ROAD TO PERDITION returns filmmaking to a more steady pace, which not only gives one pause to enjoy the action and excitement, but it also doesn't give you a damn headache like Marc Foster did.
For Craig's third go-around, the story would have us briefly believe that James Bond is killed by friendly fire when his associate Agent Eve (Moneypenny, we learn later) is forced by M to "take the bloody shot" in order not to risk a mercenary who's stolen a valuable hard drive containing the details of undercover agents (sounds like the NOC list from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) escaping capture. Even as Bond falls to the river and Adele starts to sing her boring song, we know Bond isn't really dead because Bond never dies in the movies. Eventually "returning from the dead", Bond is recruited back into the fold to investigate a terrorist attack at the MI6 building. As the operation is considered a failure, M and the entire existence of MI6 comes under pressure from British parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee. Bearing the blunt of the blame, M (played for the last time by Judi Dench) is strongly urged to retire by parliament's chairman Gareth Mallory (played by Ralph Fiennes, who seems perfectly fit for a James Bond film). As Bond investigates, chases, fights and nearly dies at the hands of his enemies, we learn the motive behind the terror attacks are to ultimately discredit, humiliate and kill M. Her enemy is former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem in a very effeminate persona, unfortunately) who plots his revenge against her for betraying him in the past (just what is it about this woman that pisses people off to the point of wanting her dead?? Remember Sophie Marceau as Elekra King in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH?).
Although Bond has never completely respected her authority, he's compelled to protect her at all costs. Here's where the film takes a turn to the more personal side of Bond's character as he drives her (in the classic 1964 Aston Martin DB5, of course) to the middle of nowhere in Scotland to hide out in none other than his childhood home called Skyfall. We've always known that Bond was an orphan (his parents died in a climbing accident according to Alec Trevelyan in GOLDENEYE), but it's only through the gamekeeper of the old estate, Kincade (played by Albert Finney) that we truly learn of who Bond was as the grieving boy who would eventually become the young man recruited into the world of secret agents and global danger. In fact, after the climactic battle has concluded, the house has exploded, and the bad guys are dead, M dies in Bond's arms and we see the great James Bond cry for the first time in the the fifty year franchise (George Lazenby didn't even cry when his wife was killed at the end of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), perhaps echoing a reoccurring pain of losing ones mother all over again. Tough as M was with her favorite spy, we've always suspected that need within her to act as mother to James. In fact, the last thing she says to Bond is "I did get one thing right."
While SKYFALL soars high above many other Bond films, it's hardly perfect. Our diabolical villain in Javier Bardem is somewhat of a disappointment, not just due to the practically gay character he employs, but his plot of simply wanting revenge against one woman is hardly worthy of the ultimate plans of world domination we've previously enjoyed by men like Dr. No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Hugo Drax or even Max Zorin. There's virtually no Bond girl in this one, and whatever time she does manage to occupy is quickly killed off midway through the film. On the other hand, perhaps it's the deliberate point of the story that Bond is destined to end his latest adventure not in the arms of some hot babe in the sack, but rather to offer his arms to the one woman who has meant more to him than any of us fans were truly led to believe. In the end, even the great hard-as-nails, heart-of-stone James Bond needs a mother.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Kincade (after killing two men at Skyfall): "Welcome to Scotland!"
Friday, August 4, 2017
(September 2004, U.S.)
It astonishes me how so few people I speak with about it have heard of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and yet, I almost can't blame them. Not only was the film released at the close of the 2004 summer blockbuster season, but it also had to compete with the likes of too many other faster-paced comic book action films of the new decade, including SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN. This is actually a film that might have done better in the 1980s, when its only real competition in action/adventure filmmaking would have been STAR TREK movies, Indiana Jones and the original STAR WARS trilogy. Regardless of its poor timing and its box office failure, the film is, in my opinion, a technological achievement in not only its use of digital artistry, animation and modeling, but also in its wondrous Art-Deco homages to adventure settings and heroes of the glorious past; from Flash Gordon to Buck Rodgers to Superman to WAR OF THE WORLDS, as originally envisioned by H.G. Wells. Among some others of its type, it influenced SIN CITY (2005), a much more successful film.
The year is 1939 in New York City, but it's not quite the same 1939 we know from history. Technology is advanced and the world's most valued scientists are disappearing without a trace. In one of its many homages, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a reporter and photographer for The Chronicle, and also a perfect replica of Lois Lane as featured in the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. While investigating the disappearances, an air raid siren erupts and the city is soon under attack from an invasion of giant robots that, again, pay homage to a 1941 Fleischer Superman cartoon called "The Mechanical Monsters". In fact, some of the film's shots of armed police and the robots during this sequence are practically identical to the cartoon's original animation. Take a look...
Desperate for a hero's help, the city summons air force commander Joe Sullivan or "Sky Captain" (played by Jude Law), who flies a rather James-Bond-technologically-advanced Curtiss P-40 fighter plane, engaging the marching robots, but causing little damage. Like Lois, Polly shoots pictures of the whole thing from the street with little regard for her own safety. News reports tell of similar robot attacks all over the world. With one robot damaged, Joe and his team try to understand its technology and just what is happening and why. The only clue we have are two vials given to Polly by one of the scientist convinced he was next to be captured by the mysterious mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf. We never see this mad doctor, but the film builds him up to be as evil and diabolical as the classic James Bond villain hell-bent on world domination and destruction.
Throughout the film, there are spectacular action sequences of air battles, robot attacks, shoot-outs and daring rescues. Unfortunately, throughout all of it, we're left to contend with Polly's irritating whining about how she only has two shots left in her camera and can't decide how to best use them (this is the film's only real plot flaw). By the time the mystery concludes, we learn that the infamous Dr. Totenkopf is nothing more than a rotting corpse whose evil plan has been programmed into his robots for nearly two decades. Their determination to carry out their mission will ultimately bring about the end of the world and the start of a new race on a distant planet (with the two vials containing the new "Adam and Eve") unless the great "Sky Captain" can defeat them. Like the traditional weekly serial film of yesterday or even the Saturday morning cartoon adventure those of my generation grew up with, good surely triumphs over evil in the end and all is well with our world.
One of the film's most astonishing visual effects is the use of Laurence Olivier (who died in 1989), appearing as the deceased villain Dr. Totenkopf through the use of digital manipulation (Bryan Singer did the same thing with Marlon Brando in SUPERMAN RETURNS). This move not only adds to the great homages that SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW achieves, but also reminds us of just what kind of a year 1939 was in Hollywood because of this great English actor (there's a quick shot in the film of a movie theater marquee showing WUTHERING HEIGHTS and even a moment when Joe asks, "Is it safe?"). The film didn't gross too much in the wake of more popular adventure hero material of that summer, like SPIDER-MAN 2. It is, however, a film that shouldn't be ignored, not only for its beautiful visual experience, but also its ability to tap into our most wholesome imagination, creating the same spirit many of us felt when we first saw STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE for the first time. In fact, I personally thought that Jude Law was so effective as the classic adventure hero, I even told people that I thought he'd make a great Indiana Jones if they ever decided to continue the franchise with a new actor. That was back in 2004. Instead, Lucas (look for the number 1138 in the film, too) and Spielberg made the regrettable KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL in 2008.
If nothing else, the film is all about homage and nostalgia, and its target audience are those who understand and appreciate such sentiments at the movies. And speaking of homage, during the underwater scene when "Sky Captain's" plane is functioning like a submarine (think of Bond's white Lotus Esprit in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), keep your eyes open for quick shots of the wrecked ships Venture (the steam ship from the 1933 version of KING KONG) and the RMS Titanic (in one piece, not split in two as in James Cameron's film).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Aerial platform voice-over: "Permission to land on Platform 327."
(another homage, this one to Cloud City in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I love it!)
Saturday, July 29, 2017
(August 1999, U.S.)
I feel nothing but genuine pity for director M. Night Shyamalan. The poor bastard just hasn't been able to score a solid movie hit since THE SIXTH SENSE, his phenomenal movie "one hit wonder", as I've come to refer to it. Even in as much as I love the film, sometimes I still can't fathom just how he pulled it off and surprised us all to no end with a final resolution that I hardly consider original or groundbreaking. The shock of "they were dead the whole time" has been done before. Here's just a few examples that come to my mind...
THE TWILIGHT ZONE - Season One, episode sixteen (1960) - Nan Adams, while driving alone on a country road trip, is in an auto accident and seemingly survives without a scratch. Along her journey, she's haunted by an old man hitchhiker who is waiting for her at every step of her trip. We learn at the end the old man is the personification of death and that Nan did, in fact, die in the accident and has been dead all along.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) - Mary Henry survives an auto accident after a drag race. Traveling to Utah, she repeatedly experiences terrifying encounters when she becomes invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world, as if she's not there. Well, guess what - she's not. We learn at the end that she didn't survive the accident and has been dead all along.
JACOB'S LADDER (1990) - Jacob Singer returns home from Vietnam only to be plagued by demons tearing his life apart. Blah, blah, blah, blah...we learn at the end he actually died in Vietnam under the influence of a mind-altering experimental drug and has been dead all along.
You see what I'm trying to say here? Why were we all so shocked and astonished when we learned that Bruce Willis had been dead all along? It wasn't anything new...and yet, there was something completely fresh about the whole thing, and that was probably the fact that we given almost no obvious clues along the way. From everything we were able to ascertain, Bruce was alive and well and helping to ease the suffering of little Haley Joel Osment who announced to the world, "I see dead people."...
But even that claim is not without challenge, because the clues were there; we just didn't know how to look for them. Little Cole Sear (Osment) told Dr. Malcom Crowe (Willis) that the dead walk among us all the time, unaware they're dead, and "see what they wanna see". He also told us that those who remain often seek to complete unfinished business or ask for help from the living, in this case, Cole. Malcom, a once gifted child psychiatrist, is repenting over his failure to help another troubled boy who eventually grew up to be the troubled man who shot and killed him (we learn later that he, too, saw dead people, through a revealing tape recording). Malcom believes that by helping Cole, he can cleanse his own troubled soul for failing the other boy.
The prospect of the dead seeking help from the living rather than the classic motive of causing them harm is, indeed, intriguing. The little girl Kyra who provides Cole with a videotape at her own wake reveals to her father and family that it was her own mother that was keeping the poor girl sick and eventually killing her (what kind of sick parent does that???). Through this one act of assistance, Cole learns to live with the ghosts he sees and fit in better at school and in life. He can also further help Malcom by advising him to tell his wife how he really feels by talking to her when she sleeps (ah, here we go!). This is where Malcom realizes he's not been wearing his wedding ring the entire time and that he's been walking among us and seeing what he wanted to see (just like Cole said). Our hero doctor and savior of little Cole has been a corpse the entire time and we, the audience, were fooled! Like the resolution of an Agatha Christie film, there's something deliciously decadent about not only realizing that we've been the "victims" of a plot scam the entire time, but also finally being let in on the whole thing in the end.
Having recently watched THE SIXTH SENSE to gain a fresh perspective for this post, it's also the first time I've watched the film since becoming a father. It's a more disturbing film to watch now, in my opinion, not because of its horror elements, but because I find it emotionally difficult to watch a sweet little boy suffer so much in pain and agony. As a father of my own little boy, I long to reach out to Cole to ease his pain and tell him it's all going to be okay (I suppose if my own son starts seeing dead people, then I can exercise such paternal instincts!).
One final point I'd like to make. As careful and precise as the filmmakers were in making sure they covered their tracks in hiding Bruce Willis' true existence (or lack there of!), there is one moment in the film where I swear they've made a mistake. In the restaurant scene when Malcom seemingly shows up late to his anniversary dinner and sits across the table from his wife (widow), there IS a quick moment when she makes direct eye contact with him, as if acknowledging his presence in that chair. Watch the scene for yourself and you'll see it, too...
Sorry, M. Night...but you're busted! Still, I suppose you've been paying the price with your film career ever since your big hit of '99 with crap like THE VILLAGE (2004), THE HAPPENING (2008), THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010) and AFTER EARTH (2013). Honestly, I'm surprised the man can still get studio funding. Though, to be fair, I understand SPLIT (2016) was pretty good. I haven't seen it yet.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cole Sear: "Grandma says hi. She says she's sorry for taking the bumblebee pendant. She just likes it a lot. She wanted me to tell you..."
Lynn Sear (scared): "Cole, please stop."
Cole: "She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance. She said, when you were little, you and her had a fight, right before your dance recital. You thought she didn't come see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn't see. She said you were like an angel. She said you came to the place where they buried her. You asked her a question? She said the answer is..."Every day." What did you ask?"
Lynn (in tears): "Do...do I make you proud?"
Friday, July 21, 2017
(May 1984, U.S.)
Looking back at the 1980s now, I can't help but wonder how I and everyone else of my generation ever got through their teenage years with all of its tacky pop culture and bullshit. The big hair, the leg warmers, the pop metal...Boy George??? But then again, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that there was a man like the late John Hughes to somehow get us through it all. John was quite possibly the one person of the decade who could ask us to stop for a moment, take our eyes off of MTV and recognize our own existence in this world. The drama of THE BREAKFAST CLUB was still a year away, so for the time being, the funnier side of teenage life would penetrate our minds with SIXTEEN CANDLES.
Who were you in high school back in the '80s? Were you the gorgeous jock that every girl longed for? Were you the popular Prom Queen that every boy in school wanted to fuck? Were you dreaded geek that everyone else tried to avoid sitting next to on the equally-dreaded school bus? Or perhaps, were you someone like Samantha Baker (played by Molly Ringwald)? She's the girl on the verge of womanhood trying to not only figure out her place in a vast array of suburban teens, but also suffering from a desperate infatuation for the gorgeous jock Jake Ryan (played by Michael Schoeffling) who doesn't have the slightest clue that she even exists. For Samantha, just trying to get her family to pay even an ounce of attention to her on her sixteenth birthday is a challenge, as her older (and not-so-bright) sister is about to be married to a real sleazebag and is hogging all the attention instead. At school, during study hall, she takes a "sex quiz" given to her by a friend and confesses that she'd gladly give up her virginity to Jake. Too bad that Jake managed to get his hands on this quiz and now has full knowledge of just how Samantha feels about him. Jake, despite any stereotypes we may have toward the mindless high school jock, is a boy of feelings and sensitivity. Despite the fact that he's hooked up with the beautiful, rich, obnoxious Prom Queen, he's initially flattered by the idea of Samantha's attraction and seeks to find out more about her beyond the prospect of simply banging her (that, he can get anytime he wants from the dizzy Prom Queen!).
But if her potential humiliation with Jake weren't enough, Samantha has two sets of visiting grandparents to deal with (two of them sleeping in her room!), as well as the totally bizarre Chinese exchange student two of them brought along called Long Duk Dong (I'll get to him in further detail later). Just how do you begin to feel special on your sixteenth birthday when you're surrounded by all of this in-home madness? Maybe the school dance will help. Maybe she'll have the courage to tell Jake just how she feels about him. Or maybe instead, she'll be harassed by the school geek, the king of the dip-shits, or in other words, this guy...
Really, if this doesn't destroy your birthday for good, I don't know what does! Surprisingly, though, the "Geek" (played by Anthony Michael Hall), as he's simply called (he's actually identified as Ted in the film) turns out to be the one who will listen to Samantha's woes, offer advice, and even try to hook her up with Jake. She appreciates his friendship. She must...I mean, why else would she willingly give the guy her panties to help him out?? Unlike the traditional school geek we may have known in our real lives, this one isn't the shy type. He makes his presence known to others and even has the balls to crash a senior party with his two "dudes" (one of them an unknown John Cusack). Like the chameleon, he knows how to blend in (or at least make a valiant attempt) with the cool kids at the party, even if in the end, he's placed underneath the glass coffee table. Still, you gotta give the "Geek" the proper credit for becoming the "hero" by the end of the film by not only driving the Prom Queen home in a fancy Rolls Royce, but also believing he had sex with her, too. We know they didn't, but their drunken delusions are hardly anything we want to spoil. We cheer the "Geek" because there's likely a small part of us that can relate to his desires and dreams of high school fame. Oh, yeah, and of course Samantha and Jake come together in the end, too. What else would we expect in a movie?
For all its implications of teen angst and sensitivity to growing up in a world that doesn't understand them, the wild comedy in the tradition of its predecessors like PORKY'S and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (both 1982) is not lost. High school years in the '80s is a wild time; inside its walls, the weekend parties and the insane life at home we're forced to contend with. When we aren't taking our teen years too seriously, we have many reasons to laugh, particularly the idea of the bride hopped up on an over-abundance of muscle relaxers on her wedding day! However, if we take a deeper look at SIXTEEN CANDLES, it's impossible not to recognize that the underlying themes behind its social situations are not only very relevant, but also not necessarily dated, either. While Hughes makes it clear that high school can be a funny place for four years of our lives, it's also a potential battleground where these poor kids are forced to fight for their identity and their place within the world inside that dreaded building. There's no teen revolt against authority because by all accounts, these kids don't recognize authority. Teachers in this film are hardly more than a minimal presence, if not a complete joke. The film is strictly a teen's world defined by school, their clothes, their cars, their parties, their music and the endless possibilities of their sex lives.
The film is ultimately not without its stereotypes, far beyond that of the "Geek". The Prom Queen, if not the blonde, in general, is a mindless ditz who can't see far beyond the existence of her beauty, her body, her wealth and her popular social status by being with the right guy, in this case, the gorgeous jock. While the "Geek" is quite atypical in this film, it's easy to see that his two best friends, Bryce and "Wease", who by all stereotypical definitions, are unpopular, unwanted and even bullied (when I look at them now, I can't help but notice a slight resemblance to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two seniors responsible for the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999; something John Hughes never would have conceived in his screenwriting of two unwanted boys). The strongest stereotype, of course, is Long Duk Dong (I told you I'd get back to him). While it's impossible not to find his character the funniest thing in the movie, he is, nonetheless, an offensive stereotype to any and all Asian people who choose to take offense. His stilted English dialogue, offensive or not, is still outrageous comedy. There are also moments in the film that today would be classified as totally politically incorrect, if not dangerous. Remember the scene where Jake and the "Geek" are talking alone after the wild party and Jake confesses that his girlfriend is passed out in the bedroom and he could violate her ten different ways if he wanted to? Also, in the Rolls Royce, the "Geek" and the Prom Queen wake up next to each other, very certain that the two of them had sex with each other as a result of their drunken stupor the night before. It's all funny, but by today's standards of movie morality (whatever the hell that might be!), these scenes practically condone date rape; again, something Hughes never would have intentionally written about.
This is how someone with a serious mind toward cinema may choose to spend their time analyzing a simple teen comedy like SIXTEEN CANDLES. In the end, however, let's not forget when it came out and why it came out; to give all us young kids of the '80s the opportunity to better understand ourselves and even laugh at ourselves in the process. Thank you, John, for that. We'll never forget it...or you.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Long Duk Dong: "I've never been so happy in my whole life!"
Marlene: "You maniac!"
Long Duk Dong: "Now I have a place to put my hand!"
Monday, July 10, 2017
(September 1992, U.S.)
CNN has just begun their annual summer documentary series of each decade since the 1960s. We're now into the 1990s, and like the others before it, they begin the series with popular and influential television. Those of us who still have the '90s fresh in our minds and our memories will recall that FRIENDS and MELROSE PLACE were two of the decade's hottest shows. Yet, surprisingly, most people easily forget, or simply won't acknowledge that neither of those shows would have likely existed were it not for Cameron Crowe's film SINGLES first. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let's recap...
The film centers on the social and romantic lives of a group of young people of the Generation X era, living in Seattle, Washington during the grunge music phenomenon at the start of the '90s. The young men and women are almost always hanging out together (often in the local coffee shop) and happen to live in the same apartment complex. While the film divides itself into the chapters of their multiple lives (echoing Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, in my opinion), we're intended to focus more on Steve Dunne and Linda Powell (played by Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick, respectively) from the time they first meet at a grunge club straight on through their rocky relationship, that includes an unexpected pregnancy and a car accident that causes her to lose the baby. It's easy to see just how crazy each of them are about each other from the time they meet, yet neither of them are capable of a true commitment to each other, even when they agree to get married due to the pregnancy. Rocky or not, their relationship is built on love, and that, of course, triumphs in the end. And if we're not entirely sure of how to keep up with things, we have the benefit of on-screen narration by its principal characters (think Woody Allen again at the opening of ANNIE HALL or Ferris Bueller speaking to us on his day off).
Though not given equal screen time, we can't ignore the relationship between Cliff (played by Matt Dillon), a grunge rock musician playing in a band called Citizen Dick (his band mates the real members of Pearl Jam at the start of their career!) and Janet (played by Bridget Fonda, a waitress at the above-mentioned coffee shop who wants to be an architect (poor choice, girl!). She loves him, he likes her. She's committed to him, he sees other people. She comes to her senses and dumps him, he regrets his aloofness with her and tries to win her back. It's all part of what constitutes real life, real world relationships and their irresistible moments of happiness, setbacks, sorrow and just plain 'ol stupidity. But more than these clichés, SINGLES makes a rather successful attempt at pointing out the vulnerability and insecurities many of us likely experienced following our college years. Not only were we faced with the prospect of finding our first place and securing our first real job, but also how to get past the ongoing grind of dealing with the opposite sex without all the games and bullshit involved in dating, sex, relationships, etc. For myself, when the film was released in the fall of 1992, I'd just finished my college education and was living alone in my mom's house (she moved out!). For the next six years, I didn't a have single serious relationship until I met the woman that would one day become my wife. Those years comprised of many dates, a old girlfriend who was now a "friend with benefits" and also a torch I was still carrying for a woman who didn't return my feelings. In short, the nineties were a real bitch for me as a single!
Cameron Crowe has managed to repeatedly capture the hearts and minds of young people since he wrote the screenplay for FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), continued with SAY ANYTHING (1988) and went straight on through to ALMOST FAMOUS (2000). Through it all, he's also reminded us of the music that's represented the soundtrack of our lives, regardless of what the era was. High school was never without its rock music, love was not without Peter Gabriel and the boom box held high above our heads, fun was not without the live rock concerts, and as singles trying to figure out where we belonged, the grunge music took what we'd previously known as heavy metal hair music and turned into something completely wild and different. Unfortunately, rock may have very well ended in the '90s during the grunge period. What can the entire 21st Century (so far) honestly claim for itself with any pride? Justin Beiber, Lady GaGa and Taylor Swift (geez, I think I'm going to be sick!)??
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cliff Poncier: "Where are the anthems for our youth? What happened to music that meant something? The Who at the Kingdome, or Kiss at the Coliseum? Where is the "Misty Mountain Hop,"? Where is the "Smoke on the Water"? Where is the "Iron Man" of today?"
I hear you, Cliff...and I feel for you!
Monday, July 3, 2017
(February 1991, U.S.)
I swear to you right now, I cannot make up this kind of coincidence! As I start to write this post for Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, "American Girl" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is playing on my favorite classic rock radio station. If you know the film well enough, then you the know the bizarre nature of that particular song and actress Brooke Smith and...wait, the song just ended.
Michael Mann's MANHUNTER (1986) was one of my favorite thrillers of the 1980s and it still remains one of my favorite crime thrillers of all time. Yet I hadn't read the original book by Thomas Harris, RED DRAGON, nor was I aware that he wrote a sequel two years after the film that dove a whole lot deeper in the twisted mind and character of Hannibal Lecter, whom had only been mildly touched upon by actor Brian Cox. So when THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was released in 1991 (Valentine's Day, no less), the movie poster with the moth over the woman's mouth gave me no clue as to the story, so I dismissed it with little interest. Then my college roommate at the time caught me up on things and suddenly I had to see what the next chapter in Thomas Harris' saga was. As it turned out, I got to see the new film at an advance preview that followed DANCES WITH WOLVES. That's quite a long afternoon at the movies; a being a double feature from Orion Pictures (now defunct), as well as what would turn out to be two Best Picture Oscar winners in a row.
Any remnants of the film MANHUNTER are gone now. All actors have been replaced (except for Frankie Faison, though he played a different character in MANHUNTER; not Barney). Our hero is now young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) whose training at the FBI Academy is interrupted by her superior Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn) who assigns her to interview Hannibal Lecter, whom we now learn in this film is also a cannibal, as well as psychiatrist-turned-serial killer (MANHUNTER made no reference to his cannibalism). She hopes that his insight will help the FBI capture a serial killer on the loose known as "Buffalo Bill", who murders women by shooting them and then skinning their corpses. Lecter (as played by Hopkins) is not only considered criminally insane, but also dangerous enough to be kept behind a wall of solid plastic. But he's also brilliant. Although he grows impatient at Starling's cheap attempt to "dissect" his mind, he seems to like her, nonetheless. He agrees to help her catch the killer, but only at the price of her providing him with personal insights into her own mind and life. The film bases its ongoing process of procedure and "cat and mouse" tactics on the relationship of quid pro quo trust that develops between Starling and Lecter (bizarre, though it may seem).
As all of this is taking place, "Buffalo Bill" has just scored his latest victim; a young girl named Catherine Martin (played by Brooke Smith who just loves that Tom Petty song!) who's actually stupid enough to get inside a stranger's van because she has too good a heart to ignore what appears to be his painful incapacity. Turns out, she's not just any girl, but rather the daughter of a U.S. Senator, though her abductor has no idea of this. To him, she's just another woman of bodily weight who will ultimately serve his twisted agenda of creating a "woman suit" out of real women's skin in order to satisfy his sick transgender issues. "Buffalo Bill", actor Ted Levine is about as terrifying as we might expect a character of this sort. One of the creepiest moments in the film, in my opinion, is when he's looking down and Catherine in the well and insisting that she rub her skin with the lotion he's provided her. The combination of the calm and creepy effeminate tone in his voice as he says, "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.", is simply chilling!
Even as Starling gets closer and closer to solving the case through Lecter's insights and her own talent, in the end, it's really just blind luck that she happens to come across "Buffalo Bill's" (his real name Jame Gumb) house while pursuing a series of interviews in Illinois. She's quietly tipped off when she discovers a sphinx moth flying around his house, which was one of the clues we learned about earlier in the film as a direct clue to the killer. After assuring Catherine that she's now safe, we experience the fear and horror of knowing that she's now pursued by the killer in total darkness as we view his point of vision through night-vision goggles. Still, even the most clever and diabolical of serial killers are supposed to slip up somehow (at least, that's how it is in the movies) and Gumb manages to do that by cocking his revolver only inches away from Starling's head. The climax is a visual thrill as the camera goes to slow motion and Starlings reacts in time to fire all of her rounds and put the killer down. Starling has saved the day, but we're left with the thought that earlier on, the great Hannibal Lecter made a violent escape to freedom (including wearing a bloody skin mask of his own in order to get out of the building - geez!). Am I crazy, or do we actually feel a bizarre sense of joy in knowing that this lunatic has escaped his captors? Hannibal is so damn charming and seductive, maybe he's just one of those creatures that's never meant to be kept locked up in a cage. Even ten years later, in the Ridley Scott sequel HANNIBAL (2001), the infamous character was still on the run (minus a hand). That little plot twist hasn't been resolved since.
Now let me discuss Anthony Hopkins for a bit now. He's a brilliant actor who, believe it or not, had many noteworthy roles long before Hannibal Lecter, including David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and two films by Richard Attenborough, A BRIDGE TOO FAR and MAGIC. Still, it was the mighty cannibal that put him over the top with the public and the media, and even won him the Oscar for Best Actor of 1991. Did he really deserve it, though? Yes, he was brilliant as a complete psychopath, but there are times when I felt his performance was just a bit over the top, if not comically-cartoonish. I mean, really, the whole eating his liver with the fava beans and the nice Chianti, followed by the lip sucking...wasn't that just a bit much? Yes, we know you're crazy, Hannibal, but you hardly need to act like some Looney Tunes character to prove it. Perhaps this is why I was so taken in by Brian Cox's performance in the same role in MANHUNTER. There was a silent-but-deadly subtlety to his personality that spoke huge amounts of insanity that was not only plausible to the audience, but apparently enough to freak out William Peterson as Will Graham. I suppose it's all comes back to that age-old saying of "less is more".
Still, as a combination psychological crime thriller and straight-up horror film, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS doesn't disappoint. The film's terrifying qualities are further brought to life by excellent performances all around. As Starling, and perhaps even a poster girl for the feminist movement as a woman trying to make it in a man's FBI world, Jodie Foster delivers a strong sense of innocence and naiveté that is inevitably transformed into a much tougher role of self-survival when she's ultimately challenged by not only the monster she's after, but the monster she also comes to depend upon. That's some pretty deep stuff in a world of relationships between a vast array of traditional and unconventional personalities. Only from the mind of someone like Thomas Harris, I suppose. But I do wish the man would write something else having nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter. His only other book was his first, BLACK SUNDAY, which went on to become my favorite thriller of all time in 1977.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1991. In my humble opinion, it should have been THE PRINCE OF TIDES (that one was for you Babs!).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Hannibal Lecter (to Clarice Starling): "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you...all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars...while you could only dream of getting out...getting anywhere...getting all the way to the FBI."
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
(October 2004, U.S.)
THE GODFATHER, DO THE RIGHT THING, PULP FICTION; what do they all have in common? The answer is that were you to ask me what I considered to be the single best motion picture of each respective decade, these are the films I would choose. And so, to continue such personal convictions, let me tell you right off the bat that I consider Alexander Payne's SIDEWAYS to be the single best motion picture of the 2000s. I have to say that wasn't a very difficult decision in a decade that was filled to-the-brim with comic book superhero franchise movies that still (unfortunately) continues into today.
Still, what's the appeal? An entire film about wine? A depressing film about two unsuccessful men in their forties who appear to be stuck in the middle of their lives? Well, I suppose that's the "half empty" way to look at the bottle here (pun totally intended!). At it's most heartfelt and optimistic level, SIDEWAYS is the traditional road movie between two buddies who have know each other since college. Miles Raymond (played by Paul Paul Giamatti) is a bored middle school English teacher, a failed writer and a depressed divorcee whose only real optimistic outlook on life is his proud position of being an aficionado of good wine. His best friend Jack Cole (played by Thomas Haden Church) is a once aspiring actor who's now at the point in his life where he's about to be married and subsequently, enter his future father-in-law's real estate business. With one week to go before Jack's wedding, he and Miles hit the road for a trip through California's Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Miles' goal for the week is to drink good wine, eat good food, play golf and send his best friend out in style. Jack, on the other hand, is out to satisfy his need for one last sexual fling before tying the knot and settling into domestic life.
Again, we're forced to ask ourselves, a movie about wine? The answer to that question, in my opinion, manages to pay off in an early scene where Miles gives Jack his first real lesson in wine tasting. This scene takes its time in that we as the audience are taken through the steps of what makes a good glass of wine so pleasurable. Miles teaches us, too, and if we're patient enough, we listen and we learn. In between the wine tasting and the wine knowledge we acquire along the way, we watch the friendship between these two men slowly deteriorate with each passing day as Jack pursues his quest for pussy from attractive local wine pourer Stephanie (played by Sandra Oh) while Miles is left behind in the dust, despite his attraction to local waitress at The Hitching Post II (apparently a real life popular California restaurant) Maya (played by Virginia Madsen), who's also a lover of wine. Even as Miles tries to work up enough courage to get closer to Maya, he's still eating away at himself over his failed marriage and the prospect of his book never getting published (I can personally relate to the fear of that last one). Miles clings to his appreciation and conviction of wine almost as a life-saving weapon against everything else in life he cannot control. While he can tell you everything that's right and perfect about Pinot noir and everything that's so damn wrong with Merlot (and the people that drink it!), he cannot fathom his own heart and ambitions. Even when he's describing in detail, the reasons he loves Pinot so much; the grape's thin skin, its need for constant care and attention, and its struggle to survive, it's easy to recognize that Miles is very likely describing himself and his own life, as well. Still, Paul Giamatti has never been an actor that I equate with joy and happiness. The man has a true talent for portraying the pains and anguishes of life. We can not only relate to, but can also almost respect his need to express his rage and frustration upon learning that his manuscript has been rejected (again) and lashes out by defiantly drinking the entire spit bucket of red wine before him. Hey, life sucks sometimes, and sometimes the only solution is wine...lots of wine!
But even as SIDEWAYS attempts to show us its own "slice of life" through the eyes of four imperfect wine loving people, it also successfully remembers life's hilarity and insanity. Upon having lost Stephanie forever once she learns he's getting married, Jack has no trouble moving on and fucking some overweight redneck waitress at the local rib joint. This time, though, he's literally busted butt naked when he's discovered by her husband with, as he puts it, "My dick in his wife's ass!". And as Miles always seems to be the one bearing the bunt of Jack's bullshit, it's hilarious to watch Miles sneak into the waitress's house to retrieve Jack's wallet that contained two custom-made wedding rings. This little ring rescue and break-in seems just the perfect conclusion to a week that's been filled with life's unanswered questions and thought-provoking issues...all the while in the hands of those who fill their glasses and contemplate their lives through a bottle of red or a bottle of white (whatever mood they're in tonight).
Movies, when done right, can influence our lives, emotions and actions. That's doesn't necessarily disappear with age and maturity. Speaking personally, I have, at times, succumb to the influence of movies and its stars. When I was a kid in the '70s, I wanted to learn to dance like John Travolta after SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. In the '80s, I ran right out and spent my hard-earned money on a pair of Rayban aviator sunglasses after seeing Tom Cruise in TOP GUN (twice!). In the summer of 2005, after having seen and purchased SIDEWAYS, I fancied myself as someone who now loved wine more than he had before the movie. My wife and I toured several wineries in the Hamptons and I took the time to put more care and attention into the process of each and every glass of wine (I prefer red) I savored; with good food, with dark chocolate, whatever. Today, I still can't help but sniff what's in my glass before each sip. Wine, unlike other forms of alcohol, requires such care and attention from the time it's chosen off the shelf, to the food that will accompany it, to the way it looks in your glass and feels going down your throat. Because in a world filled with absolute crap, wine is one of those few things that enables us to stop for a moment and envision life's (few) pleasures that surround its ultimate flavor.
So, who's ready for a drink??
Favorite line or dialogue:
Maya Randall: "I like to think about the life of wine."
Miles Raymond: "Yeah."
Maya: "How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline."
Maya: "And it tastes so fucking good!"
Oh, yeah...I hear you, Maya!
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
(September 2015, U.S.)
Over the last eight years or so, there have been a series of great films that reflect (or are inspired by) real life political or criminal situations or crisis that have taken place in our 21st Century world following the events of 9-11. These films have included THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY, 13 HOURS and SICARIO. The film, in its own way, I suppose, picks up where Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film TRAFFIC left off in its harsh and realistic depiction of the brutal and powerful Mexican drug cartel.
The film begins in Arizona, where a drug raid by the FBI reveals one of the most graphic and grotesque images of dead bodies I've ever seen on the screen; multiple bloodied and decaying corpses wrapped in plastic and hidden behind the walls (geez!)! Not an easy sequence to watch, but this raid sets things up for the heroine of the film, FBI agent Kate Maser (played by Emily Blunt), as she's asked to volunteer for a special joint DOD-CIA task force to apprehend the Sonora Cartel lieutenant Manuel Díaz, the man responsible for the massacre they discovered. As one would predict, Kate not only volunteers, but enters into this team with a naive sense of morality that her superiors simply don't adhere to. Those in charge are determined to bring Díaz, as well as his bosses in the drug cartel; how they do it and the laws they have to break on the Mexican side of the border are of no concern to them. Kate will be lied to, deceived, and kept in the dark about her true purpose with them until she inevitably discovers it all for herself.
The question one finds themselves asking while watching SICARIO is just who are the good guys in this film and how much do we believe in or agree with what they're doing. Kate is virtuous and honest, and perhaps that just makes her plain stupid in a world of government men who know nothing of such values in the field of war. The men she follows and observes are indecent men in an indecent time of drugs and murder. One must ask themselves if all moralities are forced out the window when dealing with Mexican animals who seems to take pleasure in not only killing their victims, but hanging their decapitated bodies out for display for all citizens to see. Our enemy across the border is pure evil, and it would seem that one must become evil (even just a little bit) to combat greater evil. Good or bad, right or wrong, you decide for yourself.
Kate Maser not only forces herself to cling to her values, but even tries (in vain) to understand the motives of the unscrupulous men she works with, including Alejandro Gillick (played by Benicio del Toro), a brutal hitman who also specializes in torture tactics in an effort for the greater good, as well as avenging the murder of his wife and daughter by Díaz's boss, Fausto Alarcón, whom he succeeds in killing at the film's climax, along with his wife and two sons as they dine outdoors. In the end, the film's mission is accomplished, but Mexico's brutality and violence still looms in the air over the lives of the innocent.
Personally, I've never had any interest in visiting Mexico. Too many movies displaying its violence and corruption, I suppose, whether that's fair or not. SICARIO certainly doesn't help the country's cause, especially when it's accompanied by some of the most menacing music I've ever heard in a motion picture soundtrack. Despite being a tale of fiction, it's based on too much negative press we've become accustom to when hearing about the country south of the border and its ongoing drug war. Mexican citizens were urged to boycott the film upon its release, believing that it represented a negative and false image of its cities. Whether we as Americans believe such a statement is up to each of us. As lovers of film, we can, at best, appreciate a taut, hard-edged thriller like SICARIO for its outstanding performances by all involved, particularly Benicio del Toro, who practically lurks in the shadows of the action throughout most of the story until it's time for him to strike in a form of violence and vengeance that not only leaves the viewer shaken, but perhaps just even just a little grateful that such a hard-hitting man exists to try and rid the world of just a little of the evil that occupies it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Alejandro Gillick (after shooting Kate in her bullet-proof vest): "Don't ever point a weapon at me again!"
Sunday, June 4, 2017
(May 2001, U.S.)
Even as early as the summer of 2001, I already felt that computer animated family films were coming out too fast and too furious. By then, there'd already been two TOY STORY films, A BUG'S LIFE, ANTZ, CHICKEN RUN, DINOSAUR; geez, the list seemed to be growing and it wasn't showing any signs of stopping. Why I had any interest in seeing SHREK is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it was the prospect of laughing at the sound of Eddie Murphy's wild and crazy voice. In all likelihood, however, it was probably simply the fact that the film was playing nearby in town and I was still in my enthusiastic days of just getting up off my ass and go to the movies simply because I wanted to.
Clearly, I was wrong, or I wouldn't be writing this post now. I not only loved every minute of SHREK (based on William Steig's 1990 children's picture book), but I actually found myself relating to the ogre's character, if you can believe that. Let me explain. When we first meet Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), he's somewhat of a recluse character who values the simple pleasures of home, a good meal and a fine drink (sounds like me). Above all else, he values his privacy and not having it violated by anyone unless he wants them to (definitely sounds like me!). When he unexpectedly finds his private life interrupted by endless fairytale characters that have just been exiled to his land and swamp by Lord Farquaad of Duloc (voiced by John Lithgow), Shrek declares that he intends to have them removed immediately. In his quest to fulfill a bargain with Farquaad in order to get the unwanted fairytale squatters off his land, Shrek and his new tag-along, never-shutting-his-mouth Donkey (voiced by Murphy), are off on their quest to rescue Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) who's being held in a castle tower guarded by boiling lava and a fire-breathing dragon. Farquaad wants the princess rescued because he's been told by the "Magic Mirror on the Wall" that in order for him to finally and officially become king of Duloc, he must marry a princess.
When Shrek and Fiona finally meet, they can't stand each other (clearly the start of what will become a loving relationship later). Fiona is a spoiled-brat princess and Shrek is well, an ogre (oil and water, of course). Okay, we know that opposites inevitably attract, but the film's ultimate lesson of not judging those on the outside due to their ugliness without getting to know what's on the inside first may be a wild stretch ever for these two. Still, nothing can make you laugh in your theater seat like the sound of two opposites bickering back and forth like two pissed-off parents, and of course, having Donkey fill in the gaps with his wise-ass Eddie Murphy-style of comedy doesn't hurt things, either. As Shrek and Fiona inevitably find they have much in common and fall in love, it appears that a dark secret of Fiona's may bring them together after all, as she is under a bad spell from her childhood that turns her into a female ogre every night when the sun goes down. In the end, only true love's first kiss will transform Fiona to what will finally be her true and intended self. Will it be lovely human or ugly beast ogre? The answer comes when Shrek bursts in on Fiona's reluctant wedding ceremony with Farquaad (oh, how I wanted the climax of THE GRADUATE to be mocked at this moment with Shrek pounding the glass and repeatedly screaming "Fiona, Fiona, Fiona!") and we discover that love's true first kiss between her and Shrek means that they'll spend their lives together as ogres; misunderstood and feared by the rest of the kingdom, but understood and loved by each other. Hence, the film's intended message of good will, understanding and love (yeah, right, whatever. I came to the theater to laugh my ass off and I did!).
Okay, that's just me being a cynical bastard, but the heart behind SHREK, even as it's true purpose is to be filled with silly and wicked fun and jokes, is clear enough. And really, who better to make a complete and comical jackass of himself (pun totally intended!) than Eddie Murphy, who unfortunately, chose that latter part of his career to become a whole lot more family-oriented after a string of vulgar R-rated hits in the 1980s. The cast of the film is perfect, right down to John Lithgow's delightful wickedness that embraces his longtime love of children's material, as well as pure evil (think RAISING CAIN). Unfortunately, like so many other Hollywood successes, sequels and franchising ultimately takes things to far that it becomes almost a struggle to remember just how simply and originally things began in 2001.
Now a personal story. It may not have too much to do the film of SHREK itself, but it's more about timing and life's circumstances. My wife Beth (fiancée at the time) and I went to see SHREK in Westhampton Beach almost immediately after it opened (like I said before, it was one of those Saturday nights when we just wanted to go to the movies). After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, it was nearly two weeks until we returned to the (former) family home in the Hamptons. Although we (and the rest of New York City) were in a confused and vulnerable state after what had just happened, it was, in reality, one of the best weekends I ever spent at my home. It was late September and the weather was perfect. We went to the beach, we swam in the ocean, we rode our bikes, we grilled outdoors, we made love, and we went to the movies that Saturday night to see SHREK for the second time because the film had just been re-released, along with every other studio comedy that had been previously released that summer of 2001 in a truly noble effort by all of Hollywood to get America laughing again. It was only two days out of my live, but never before had I felt so safe and secure amidst a world-gone-mad that had just made it clear that no one was safe anymore. It was the simple power of home, of love, of knowing that I was just weeks away from marrying the love of my life, and of laughter at the movies with a film like SHREK. I'm grateful for that weekend and that (temporary) feeling.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Princess Fiona: "You didn't slay the dragon??"
Shrek: "It's on my to-do list! Now come on!"
Saturday, May 27, 2017
(May 1980, U.S.)
For Stanley Kubrick's 1980 screen version of Stephen King's THE SHINING, I'm going to take a writing approach I've never done before on my blog. What I shall do, basically, is offer two (2) perspectives of the legendary horror film - the first shall be how I interpreted the film when I first saw it at the age of thirteen in 1980 (THEN), followed by my current feelings and perspectives of it as a mature (sort of) adult of cinema (NOW). This sort of approach is personally significant to me because THE SHINING was one of the earliest horror films I managed to see on the big screen, and believe me when I tell you that it required some deception and sneaking around to do because both my parent were rather unreasonably strict about their son watching horror films. But as the old saying goes, the more you're denied something, the more you want it...badly! So here we go...
In January 1980, my grandmother took me and my younger brother to a Brooklyn movie theater to see a comedy of three old Hollywood veterans called GOING IN STYLE (recently remade). The reason I mention this movie, having nothing to do with horror, is because before it began, the trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING was shown (it’s only relation to the main feature being released by the same studio, Warner Brothers). The trailer was short and quite frankly, to the point; a pair of red elevator doors in the center of a hotel lobby that suddenly started to gush oceans of blood coming right towards us! As much as I was fascinated at such ambiguous images of horror, I was scared to death, as well. I mean, no actors, no dialogue, no story content – just lots and lots of blood! I think my grandmother may have tried to reach over and cover my eyes, I’m not sure. She certainly covered my brother's eyes, at least. Small children should not being seeing such horrifying images on the screen! In May 1980, I had absolutely no idea who Stanley Kubrick was. Yes, I’d seen (most of) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY on NBC-TV in 1977, but at that young age, I was hardly connecting movies with their respective directors on any level. I also didn’t know who novelist Stephen King was (ironic, considering how much King I’ve read in my adulthood). I’d heard of the 1976 movie CARRIE and had watched SALEM'S LOT on CBS-TV in 1979, but again, no connection with the author was being made. Hell, Jack Nicholson was hardly a recognizable name in my small and limited world.
Of THE SHINING, I knew only what I’d seen in the frightening trailer and what I was hearing in the TV commercial for the movie; “a masterpiece of modern horror.” What I was able to gather of its story was very simple and to the point from my perspective – a family alone during the winter in a haunted hotel. As I was still very much in the process of my horror movie curiosity, I hardly needed any further information on the subject. As luck would have it for the second time that summer, THE SHINING came to one of the local movie theaters in my hometown of Great Neck, Long Island and by the first Saturday in June, a friend of mine from middle school and I were in our seats waiting to see whatever was about to hit us. My first memory of the movie was taking note of the strange combination of the beauty of the Colorado mountains and the rather sinister-sounding music that opened it (I knew little-to-nothing of classical music). Still, beautiful or not, it was clear that we were headed toward something that was going to mean trouble later. The camera was taking us straight to the Overlook Hotel, giving us a good look at the front of the building, and then going to black to really begin the story of Jack Torrance and his family.
To begin with, little Danny Torrance was haunted by something (or someone) evil named Tony that gave him horrible visions, including the blood-gushing elevators I’d seen in the movie’s trailer. On the day of the family’s arrival at the Overlook, during the process of the tour, Danny learned just a little bit more of his mysterious visions from the friendly hotel cook, Mr. Hallorann, who appeared to be gifted (or cursed?) with the same powers as Danny; powers he called "shining". While Mr. Halloran gave a rather detailed explanation of Danny’s powers, I can’t honestly say I understood every word he was saying, but it seemed clear that both of them had the ability to see what had happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future. And as Mr. Hallorann put it in the case of the hotel’s history, "not all of it was good". The warning he gave Danny to stay out of Room 237 was surely clear enough, even to thirteen year-old boys in the theater whose horror movie experiences were still rather limited. By the time the family had been at the hotel for a month and the first snow storm hit, there was (again) that sense of environmental beauty combined with a sense of dread from the accompanying musical soundtrack. We were finally beginning to understand that this family was on its own in the middle of nowhere during a crippling snow storm, and no one or nothing would save them when they faced the horrors that were still yet to come.
It all really started when Danny disobeyed Mr. Hallorann’s warning and went into Room 237 when he came across the open door. I remember preparing myself for something really terrible to happen to the poor boy then and there. Instead, the scene dissolved into something else. It was later after Jack awoke from a horrible nightmare that we learned of Danny’s experience inside Room 237. Apparently, the family wasn’t alone in the hotel. According to Wendy Torrance, there was a crazy woman inside Room 237 who tried to strangle Danny. When Jack went to investigate, we were witnessing something that may or may not have real. Again, keeping in mind that this was a tale of a haunted hotel, I presumed the woman with a great naked body (for a short time, anyway) was a ghost of some sort. Surely, if there was any doubt about that scene in the room, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind during the ballroom bar scene that Jack was talking to a ghostly bartender of the past and very likely not even really drinking the alcohol that he’d been given. It couldn’t have been real, because it all disappeared when Wendy entered the ballroom to tell Jack of the crazy woman.
After more than half of the movie had passed, it was easy to see that THE SHINING was not like the typical slasher movies that were constantly being released at the time. The movie wasn’t even particularly violent or bloody. This movie was clearly able to scare its audience by constantly suggesting what might happen next around any given corner. We were also watching Jack Torrance slowly go insane. I can recall an intrigued smile on my face during the scene when just after Wendy discovers that all of Jack’s writing consisted of only the repeated sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.", he showed up in her face and proceeded to scream and threaten her in a completely crazy state of mind. Regardless of exactly what he was saying to her as he rattled on, it was entertaining enough just to listen to an actor like Jack Nicholson (whom I’d never forget after this movie!) make his presence and his words so well heard and feared. By the time the movie was hitting its climax, Jack Torrance had gone completely crazy and was now coming after his family with an axe (just as the previous caretaker had done in 1970, so we were told earlier). It was during the chase scene inside the snow-covered hedge maze that I really started to notice the camera work that was involved (I almost never paid attention to just how a movie was made when I was a kid). The camera made you feel like you were moving with Danny as he ran for his life from his father, around one corner and another (I’d learn later in my college youth that this was known as a tracking shot), as well as Jack’s perspective and he hunted down his son.
When it was all over and it seemed as if every horror of the hotel’s past had come back to haunt Wendy Torrance, she and Danny were finally able to escape the hotel with their lives, leaving Jack behind to freeze to death. Things ended quietly with the camera zooming into a series of black and white pictures on one of the hotel walls. In one of the photographs dated July 4, 1921, there was a man who looked just like Jack Torrance, smiling among a crowd of partygoers. Whoah! What did this final shot mean? Was Jack really alive? Was he once a person of the past in another life in the same hotel? Was it Jack’s grandfather? I was dumbfounded and confused, and so was my freind. Later, as we sat down at the local pizzeria after the movie, we tried to come up with some sort of reasonable explanation as to how THE SHINING had ended and what it all really meant. Two slices and two sodas later, I don’t think we accomplished our goal. Still, I was grateful to have added another awesome horror movie to my slowly growing list of experiences. I think we spent the next week at school repeating the line, "Here’s Johnny!"
THE SHINING is my favorite horror film of all time by my favorite director of all time - it has been my entire adult life. As a thirteen year-old kid in 1980, it was very easy to claim my appreciation for the film simply because it was scary and a totally cool movie to watch about something as simple as a haunted hotel in Colorado. Those are the cinematic interpretations of a child, and they may be considered more than credible for someone that age. Eventually, however, you grow up and you (hopefully) learn to watch films and interpret them by not only their story content, but by their hidden meanings and messages, as well, when applicable. Call me crazy, but I simply cannot resist a motion picture that dares me to use my brain and take the time and patience to figure out the complexities of its content. This is why the great films by the great filmmakers often require multiple viewings for the full understanding and appreciation they surely deserve.
Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s novel (a version that King himself has long considered a poor adaptation) is not simply a horror movie that you watch as you would any other cheap offering. The Overlook Hotel is not merely a mountain resort, but rather an invitation to the dark and evil side of our human personality. There are challenges to the mind and questions that require time, thought and effort to try and answer. There are ambiguities, feelings of open-endedness and elusiveness that force the observer of the film to wonder just which version of reality we’re meant to accept. Is it simply the ghostly disturbances that dominate an isolated setting with an evil past or are we perhaps members of a living nightmare that’s possibly manifested through Danny Torrance’s powers of "shining"? Is it possible that the Torrances are not even at the Overlook in the first place, but rather drawn into the above-mentioned nightmare through their son’s powerful abilities?
Let’s begin by examining the Overlook Hotel itself. In a number of traditional horror films, there’s often a feeling (if not an art) of claustrophobia because the story setting is set in a limited environment that may be difficult for its characters to escape forces beyond their control. Think of the motel grounds and Victorian house in PSYCHO, the bedroom of Regan MacNeil in THE EXORCIST, the suburban Haddonfield home in HALLOWEEN, the two-story colonial house in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the confined New Jersey camp grounds and woods in FRIDAY THE 13TH; we can’t help but feel trapped inside a tight space. The Overlook, however, is a complex space that’s so vast, we become frightened of what possibly lurks around the corner of a long, enclosed corridor. Kubrick recognizes this and uses his trademark steady tracking shot to follow Danny as he rides his big wheel down corridor after corridor until he finally comes face to face with the (presumed) supernatural ghostly apparitions of the twin Grady girls who we’ve come to understand as previous victims of their father’s homicidal rage. Although we may not have been entirely sure of what was waiting for us around the bend, we knew very well that Kubrick was setting us up for a good jolt at the end of Danny’s ride. This odd combination of grand spaciousness and confinement provides an irresistible uncertainty as to just what’s real at this hotel and what’s not. I suppose it's all as real as the Torrance family is willing to believe and accept as real or not.
THE SHINING is ultimately a tale of madness and not necessarily traditional ghosts. Kubrick may even be suggesting the possibility that the ghosts don’t exist at all, except in the mind of the Torrances, perhaps victims of the so-called cabin fever mentioned by Mr. Ullman at the beginning of the film. Reality becomes an unreliable entity through their eyes and perceptions. Perhaps its only the character of the hotel cook Dick Halloran that is the impartial party in this entire situation. He has the power of "shining", as Danny does, but he’s on the outside looking in, even from as far away as Miami, Florida. His arrival at the Overlook hardly puts together any solid understanding of what’s happening, but rather just a chance participant as a concerned human being for the lives of Danny and his parents. His presence at the hotel is short and sweet and cut down violently when he’s axed to death by Jack (the only scene of blood in the film other than the visions of the elevator). In the end, the only truly reliable observers to the events of the film are us, and we have to decide for ourselves what’s real and what’s not. These challenges may not necessarily be scary within the film’s content, but they create, nonetheless, a terrifying feeling within ourselves that makes such a horror film work effectively.
Now, about Jack Torrance himself. During his job interview, Mr. Ullman mentions the previous caretaker of 1970 whose name was Charles Grady, who murdered his family with an axe before taking his own life with a shotgun. Later in the film, during the ballroom scene, Jack meets and talks with Delbert Grady, a butler of the year 1920, in the men’s room. Are the two men different people in different lifetimes or are they two manifestations of the same inexplicable evil entity of the Overlook, or perhaps even Jack’s mind? Delbert Grady tells Jack that he’s "always been the caretaker", which would suggest that somehow Jack was present at the hotel in 1920, which in turn, may give us some clue to his presence in the black and white July 1921 photograph at the end of the film. Or, like Grady, is it possible that Jack Torrance is, indeed, two people - one who freezes to death in the present day of 1980 and one who lives in the year 1921? There’s also the (valid) argument that upon freezing to death, that Jack’s spirit may have been absorbed into the Overlook itself, transcending him back in time to 1921, where he may or may not have existed before as a member of the hotel’s history. These are tough challenges that are not necessarily easy to answer. I don’t have the answers. Perhaps in the end, there is no right or wrong answer. Like a great painting hanging on a museum wall, it’s a simple matter of personal interpretation and just what sort of message and meaning its content offers you. Maybe it’s best not to have these questions answered at all. For were they to be answered, THE SHINING may cease to be the extraordinary viewing experience that it is, that it has always been and shall continue to be if everything is so easily delivered in a box with a lovely ribbon on it. I don’t ever want that to happen! The thirteen year-old kid I was in 1980 was more than willing to wrap things up nice and neat after just over two hours of film time. The grown man and lover of Stanley Kubrick cinema that I am today outright refuses to accept things so neat and tidy. That’s too damn easy!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jack Torrance: "What are you doing down here?"
Wendy Torrance: "I just...wanted to talk to you."
Jack: "Okay, let's talk. What do you wanna talk about?"
Wendy: "I can't...really remember."
Jack: "You can't remember."
Wendy: "No...I can't."
Jack: "Maybe it was about... Danny? Maybe it was about him. I think we should discuss Danny. I think we should discuss what should be done with him. What should be done with him?"
Wendy (sobbing): "I don't know."
Jack: "I don't think that's true. I think you have some very definite ideas about what should be done with Danny and I'd like to know what they are!"
Wendy: "Well, I think...maybe...he should be taken to a doctor."
Jack: "You think maybe he should be taken to a doctor?"
Jack: "When do you think maybe he should be taken to a doctor?"
Wendy: "As soon as possible?"
Jack (mocking her): "As soon as possible?"
Wendy: "Oh, Jack!"
Jack: "You believe his health might be at stake."
Jack: "You are concerned about him."
Jack: "And are you concerned about me?"
Wendy: "Of course I am!"
Jack: "Of course you are! Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?"
Wendy: "Oh, Jack, what are you talking about?"
Jack: "Have you ever had a single moment's thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first? Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a contract, in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principal is? Do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you!? Has it!!?"
Wendy (swinging the bat): "Stay away from me!"
Wendy: "I just wanna go back to my room!"
Wendy: "Well, I'm very confused, and I just need time to think things over!"
Jack: "You've had your whole fucking life to think things over! What good's a few minutes more gonna do you now?"
Wendy: "Please! Don't hurt me!"
Jack: "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Wendy: "Stay away from me!"
Jack: "Wendy! Darling! Light, of my life! I'm not gonna hurt ya. You didn't let me finish my sentence. I said, I'm not gonna hurt ya...I'm just gonna to bash your brains in! I'm gonna bash them right the fuck in!"
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
(November 1996, U.S.)
Looking back at the 1990s, it seems as if I saw nearly everything on the big screen, and that's hardly an exaggeration. Because I was doing so much "movie hopping" at many multiplexes in Manhattan, it seemed that I was fulfilling every genre on my "must see" list, from blockbuster to independent to art to revival. It was all out there and I did my best to see as much of it as possible, especially when I didn't have a girlfriend. The night I saw SHINE in Manhattan was hardly a product of "movie hopping", though. A close friend of mine (ex-girlfriend, actually) had joined my for the weekend and we started out by trekking over to the famous Paris Theater just across the street from the Plaza Hotel to see Kenneth Branagh's four hour version of HAMLET. Much to out surprise, tickets were sold out and we were determined not to let our Saturday night go to waste (we'd end up seeing HAMLET just a couple of weeks later, though). We ended up on the east side buying tickets to SHINE instead.
Geoffrey Rush was a new face for me that night. I'd never heard of the man before, but I'd heard that his performance in this film was supposed to be something extraordinary. In this drama, he plays real life pianist David Helfgott, who not only developed his reputation early on as a musical genius, but also suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in psychiatric institutions. According to the film, and it's here that I have to point what may be considered a fine line between what's considered accurate and what's merely "based on a true story", David is raised by a very strict, very unreasonable and often abusive father (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) who may have been directly involved with David's inevitable road to madness. It's also suggested that the stress and difficulty with strenuous pieces of music, including his choosing to play Rachmaninoff's highly demanding Third Concerto (you may have heard that played in some Bugs Bunny cartoons when you were a kid!) may have also been directly involved with David's inevitable road to madness, particularly if you take his collapse on stage following a performance as a teenager literally. However, if you do any proper research on David Helfgott himself, there's no evidence to suggest such connections between music, parental abuse and his descent into mental breakdown. In reality, David slowly showed signs of schizoaffective disorder while he was living in London in the late 1960s.
By the film's account, the mental instability that David suffers, as it's portrayed by Geoffrey Rush with his mile-a-minute dialogue that would easily give Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN a run for his money, is the challenge that's ultimately meant to set things up for a final triumph in music. Despite David's mental challenges, we know of his gifted talent on the piano. In fact, the first triumph comes early enough when he manages to astound all of those sitting inside a popular cafe with a piano in it when they're ready to simply dismiss him as some unstable person of the street who thinks he can play the piano. One can't help but smile with joy as we watch every patron of the cafe light up themselves with joy at the sound of such miraculous music. Music is what allows those that meet David to not only remember the child prodigy he once was, but the beautiful man he is today. So beautiful, in fact, that he even wins the love and affection of the (older) astrologer Gillian (played by the late Lynn Redgrave) and they inevitably marry simply because she's convinced "the stars" say it's the correct match for her (???). Of course, the ultimate triumph of SHINE is the concluding concert in which David is so overcome with joy from the affection and applause of the audience, that he cries right there on stage. It's enough to bring you to tears also.
If music is, indeed, correctly associated with madness, then SHINE is hardly the film that introduces such a concept. Hell, just watch AMADEUS (1984) or PINK FLOYD THE WALL (1982) for an even better sense of such a connection. And although this film is deservedly recognized for its universal acclaim of Rush's performance, it should be noted that it's been attacked from every which way for not only its false portrayal of David's relationship with his father, but also the extent of David's musical abilities, as well. Apparently, he may not have been the genius the film suggests. Decide if you must if that ruins SHINE for you. It doesn't for me. It's cinema, and we're forced to make certain compromises when concluding what's true and what's not. If we took everything off of the screen too damn literally, then chances are Oliver Stone's JFK would suck for many of us (wouldn't want that to happen!).
Favorite line or dialogue:
David Helfgott: "Would you marry me?"
Gillian: "Well, it wouldn't be very practical, David."
David: "Practical? No, of course not. Of course not. But then neither am I, Gillian. Neither am I. I'm not very practical at all."
Saturday, April 29, 2017
(September 1994, U.S.)
During the 1990s, I did a lot of "movie hopping" at various multiplexes. In case that term eludes you, it's when you pay one ticket price and proceed to move around, or "hop" throughout the building watching more than one movie. Saved me a lot of money and I really got to catch up on my movies that way. Sure, it was dishonest and the multiplexes likely lost money because of me, but frankly, my dear, I just didn't give a damn!
Okay, so one night in the fall of 1994, I pay my ticket money at a local multiplex in Queens, but not to see THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Believe it or not, I was there that night to see WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (I kid you not!). You see, somehow I'd gotten it into my head that because Wes Craven was now directing again and Heather Langenkamp had returned to her role that made the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET such a hit (a film I actually no longer care for), this new (and seventh!) film in the franchise might be worth something. Oh shit, was I wrong! When it was over, I concluded that I somehow had to make up for the time and money wasted on this slasher dud. Without thinking too much about it, I simply walked into THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION because it was about to start at a convenient time. Despite the fact that the movie poster indicated it was based on a story by Stephen King, whom I loved to read, my thoughts and expectations of the film were minimal, at best. Well, it proves once and for all that sometimes the things you expect the least from shall deliver the most in return. And return, it did.
While I haven't seen too many prison dramas in my time, it's clearly become its own genre over the years, dating back to the earliest days of cinema. To call THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION my favorite prison film (which it is!) is almost too easy since I have almost no basis of comparison. In almost any prison story, you have the protagonist who is either innocent of his crime that put him there, or grossly misunderstood as a human being, despite the crime he's guilty of. This latter description would probably best fit the character of "Red" (played by Morgan Freeman and also the film's effective narrator), who, despite being convicted for murder, is a gentle man who's reputation as "the one who can get you things" not only identifies his purpose as smuggler at the prison, but also shows his kind heart in making conditions for the convicted felons there a little easier.
But let's step back a bit and concentrate on the film's hero, banker Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), who in 1947, is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover; a crime he didn't commit. Nonetheless, he's sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Keeping to himself at first, Andy finally opens up to "Red" by requesting a small rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth. While adjusting to the hell that is considered prison life, Andy is routinely assaulted and raped by a gang infamously known as "the Sisters". It's a simple spring day atop a roof building that turns things around for Andy when he inadvertently help a brutal prison guard keep his entire inheritance tax free by offering sound financial advice. The price of this valuable advice is merely three beers apiece for his fellow prison mates. In one moment of verbal risk, Andy is able to turn things around for himself with not only the prisoners, but the guards, as well, who now rely on Andy's financial services at tax time every year (and also get "the Sisters" off his back for good). As the years roll on by and the situations become more stable for Andy at Shawshank, so does his purpose there, including obtaining government funds to improve the decaying prison library and helping young prisoner Tommy Williams pass his high school GED exam. This young kid also just happens to possess information that could exonerate Andy from his crime and his conviction. Warden Norton (played by Bob Gunton) won't have that, though, as Andy has been quite instrumental in helping him in his corrupt money laundering scheme. Norton has Tommy killed to protect his little operation and it now looks like Andy has reached the end of his rope, as he faces a lifetime at Shawshank.
In the history of movie plot twists and shocking revelations, the moment when we discover that Andy has escaped Shawshank and has, for the last nineteen years, been systematically planning that escape, is one of the best I've seen on film. From the moment Norton rips the poster of Raquel Welch off of the wall and we're staring into a large gaping hole (looks like that little rock hammer wasn't so harmless, after all), it's astounding when we finally realize that all the while we've been victims (sort of) of a major deception that ultimately puts our hero on top. We know Andy has been innocent all along and we take pleasure in his personal triumphs within the prison walls that make his life easier. But nothing puts a smile on our face quite the way Andy's final act of defiance and revenge does when he not only escapes to his final destiny of the beaches of Mexico, but also in having taken down Norton in the process. To think back on Andy's actions, though small as some of them may have been, and realize how they all come together to make him a free man and to also aid "Red" on the day he should one day be free, is a personal triumph for us, as well, because we love the feeling of finally having been let in on the ultimate plan that was taking place behind our backs the entire time.
The integrity and feelings of self-worth among men are, perhaps, the strongest themes of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. In prison, where life seems hopeless, it's the simplest things that make men feel like men again, and not animals; whether it's cold beer on a May morning or a brief recorded excerpt of the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Still, even those moments of freedom are threatened by the hard fact of being institutionalized. As "Red" puts it, "These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them." By that reckoning, being free on the outside proves to be a form of imprisonment, as men like "Red" and Brooks are unable to function in the outside world. Friendship, while being nonsexual, is also very strong, as it proves the bonding love between men who have come to depend on each other for survival. There are moments that are wonderfully satisfying and uplifting, particularly the moment we, as viewers feel our own sense of triumph and validation at the end, when "Red", now a free man, strolls along the beach to be reunited with his best friend Andy, and the promise of hope and freedom.
Author Stephen King himself declared THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to be one of his favorite film adaptations based on his own work. For myself, I consider it to be one of the top ten best films of the 1990s (and that's all because my initial purpose on night in 1994 was to see a stupid horror movie!).
Favorite line or dialogue:
"Red" (narrating) "I like to think the last thing that went through his head...other than that bullet...was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him."