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."