Saturday, August 16, 2014

I'm on Wordpress!

Hey everyone,

It was time for a change. I thank all of you who have taken the time to read and subscribe to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film over the last couple of years.

I have moved to Wordpress! More material to come, including a resurrection of some of the more popular posts on this site!

http://alanjryland.wordpress.com/

It's been a great experience here over the last couple of years. I look forward to seeing you there and feel free to follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/brokenotstoked and on Instagram at http://instagram.com/alanj.ryland

See you there!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Boys (1996, Stacy Cockran)

This was a film that has been on my "to-see" list for a while now. It is a romantic film starring two of my favorite actors, Winona Ryder and Lukas Haas, both of whom I find exceptionally attractive in unusual ways. The idea of this film brought tears to my eyes. It had to be one of the most oddly attractive couples in modern film, and the idea of bearing witness to it sounded appealing. I had sort of gotten the impression that this was some sort of romantic film reminiscent of Before Sunrise in the way that it celebrates young love and embraces chemistry and character development over plot. I could not wait to see it, but I did. I found out about this film back in the late-90s and had seen it play on television a lot, but I continuously refused to watch it because I wanted to watch it from the beginning. Well, I finally sat down and watched it a couple of hours ago and... well, I was surprised by it. I honestly thought I was going to be able to write more about it, but I cannot. If you're thinking that this is the next Before Sunrise, this is not that. This is a very different kind of thing that just so happens to have a somewhat similar style to it in that it is quite well photographed and features a lot of indie music that gives it that slick, yet dated, feel of a film made by a group of hardcore Generation X folks. 
I can admit fully that I went into it expecting to be able to say a lot about it, but ultimately I cannot. It has a lot of romantic fodder that we're all familiar with today. This girl named Patty gets found by this guy named John who lives at a prep school and decides to take her back to his dorm, which is filled to the brim with obnoxious and stupid boys and hide her in his room. His hatred of the place is all too apparent and it turns out that Patty is actually on the run and is in hiding. Right now, as I'm typing, I'm trying to figure out how I could change this brief, half-hearted summary. I feel like what I've typed out points to such an obvious conclusion that I can't shake this notion that I may have already spoiled the film. Herein lies the underlying problem with the film. This material is way too weak for actors and filmmakers of this caliber. This is perhaps the most well made bad movie ever. This script is completely dull. It was written by the director Stacy Cockran based on a short story by the great James Salter. I'm not entirely clear on what went wrong from screenplay to conception, but whatever it was it led to one of the most disappointing films I think I've ever seen in my entire life. The biggest problem with this film has to do with how irrelevant much of what happens is. There are plot twists, plot elements, and plot devices that are used in this film that don't make the slightest bit of different toward the main romantic love affair. I'm not entirely sure why, because none of it should, but it comes across as extremely cloying and really distracting to the main plot. It makes the film really tiresome and gives it that feel that much of the screenplay was little more than an afterthought.  This becomes especially apparent at the end of the film, where we witness characters acting as if they are oblivious to the nature of the world around them. Not only is the ending predictable, but its as trite as can be too.

The film is also really really confusing and extremely hard to follow. I have a lot of problems with the way the film's scenes were edited. It feels like there are key moments missing from the film that should make the atmosphere of the film click more. There are background characters who come across like they belong in a different film. The realism of the events that surround this young couple completely throws off the tone and mood of the film. Flashbacks occur that explain what happened to a character, but they are thrown into it jarringly. The mood of the film doesn't call for it. There are sex scenes thrown into it that are especially perplexing. We never really get any motivation or decision or purpose for the sex scenes, and it doesn't make sense for the characters to even be doing it. The relationship in the film between the main character and his father had some strong potential, but at the end of the film it is resolved with little to no understanding of the rest of the story. The end result is just plain awkward. I'm not entirely even sure who this film was made for. Romantics will be put off by the shoddy character motivations while realists will be disgusted by the corny love scenes. Those in-between won't find the plot easy enough to follow, and fans of more daring, artistic films will find the cliched storytelling to be pretty overbearing. The two main actors do wonderfully and the film is well shot and has some decent moments, but the bottom line is that it is an unrealistic, absurd, far-fetched, ponderous film. It is absolutely terrible. Maybe I went into it with the wrong expectations, but watching it was a complete and utter nightmare. Perhaps I will give it a re-watch, because the chemistry was, at the very least, there. Right now, however, I find it to be a tremendously frustrating failure. 
3/10

Friday, November 29, 2013

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes)

It is very rare that a film can leave me in such a depressing dilemma. What we have here is a film that I cannot truly fault because it succeeds at doing exactly what it sets out to do. It is an angry, merciless, and unforgiving attack on late 40s, early 50s attitudes on the American family unit and the futility of marriage and love in the face of conservative tradition. At the heart of the film is a dysfunctional marriage with two extremely unhappy people who poison their children's minds and play the typical, expected roles that the society that they live in expects them to play and abide by. This is a film that exudes hatred, frustration, and disillusionment toward those who merely want to fit in with their surroundings in the best way that they can. Oh boy, does this film have no faults in regards to its pure fury and resentment toward the American sensibilities of the past. This film is flawlessly made in that regard, 100%. It is classy, fearless, incredibly progressive in its message and in its themes, and overall has the look and feel of a film made during that time period (except, of course, that its in color, although I would have loved if it had been in black and white). If you want to watch a film that explores the 40s and the 50s in a brutally honest and straightforward way and doesn't pretend that those times were "better" than the way things are today, this is the movie for you. Revolutionary Road is a picture so full of bitterness, confusion, detachment, and betrayal, it almost feels like it could be directed by Stanley Kubrick. 
Here's where my problems with the film arise, and I refuse to call them flaws because these things were clearly written and directed to be this way on purpose. My main problem with this film and Sam Mendes' direction is that he makes his two main characters, played brilliantly by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, way too likable and relatable. Frank and April are both extremely intelligent people, and their love for one another is completely believable and realistic. They both have charisma, senses of humor, and generally are always well-meaning in everything they do (at least in the early stages of the film). By allowing us to sympathize with these two lovers, the screenplay does the audience a huge disservice in depicting the couple's enormous disintegration. We are forced to view them from such a distanced and bitter view that I can't help but feel like I'm looking down on them throughout the picture, and I cannot stand when a film looks down on its characters. I especially cannot stand it when I know that at least half of America and at least half the people I know in my life would easily have made the same sorts of mistakes that this couple does. Why should I feel sympathy for these characters who go to war with one another? We already can identify with their mistakes, because a lot of people in life make the same ones and a lot of married people make the same ones too. The horror of this film is the screenplay's decision to let their violence progress in such a way that eventually the fights they have with each other end up ensuing in a really casual manner and it begins to feel necessary. Why do we have to view the destruction of their marriage as a process rather than as a tragedy like it is? To many viewers, I think seeing the destruction of a marriage is fascinating and the process is intriguing. To me, I felt like I was watching rats under a microscope. These people felt like science experiments done on rats, and the scientists let us take these rats home with us beforehand. 
The main mistake that this film makes, however, is its inclusion of a character who only appears for about five minutes and then disappears from the picture altogether. It is a character, so fascinating, bizarre, and multilayered that his presence in the film feels like an enormous breath of fresh air before the oven closes on us and we get thrown into the fire again. Ironically the character is insane and has been given temporary release from an institution. The character, John, is played by Michael Shannon, in a role that made my jaw drop. His character is the smartest character in the entire film. He is the voice of the audience, who wants to throw a cloak of mercy on the characters. His character sees exactly what is happening to Frank and April's marriage and describes to them in graphic detail what horrors possibly await them if they continue down the path that they should have heeded a long time ago. His presence in the film even leaks into the subconscious of the characters, eliciting them to have an argument that they should have had way earlier in the film. They begin to think more rationally about their marriage and where it is headed, and for a brief part of the film there seems to be almost a ray of hope for these people start listening to each other and begin considering moving out of their destructive environment and into a more liberal, carefree world (AKA Paris, France). Unfortunately, for the audience and the characters, Frank and April don't heed the advice of John and end up further destroying their lives, both physically and emotionally. This isn't a spoiler. The film opens with a pretty hefty prologue that heavily suggests that their lives are on the road to ruin. 
Then eventually the film mercifully ends in a way that is so devastatingly tragic and hopeless, that the character of John feels thrown into the film as if to insult us. We spend two hours in the world of these awful, cruel, unhappy, old-fashioned people who essentially find two beautiful people who could potentially be happy and love each other, and then turn them against one another and destroy all of their hopes through casual manipulation and guilt-tripping. It is completely disgusting. Rarely has a film made me so angry and furious. I cannot stand the attitude that so many people have about the old times and how ridiculous the notion of the good ol' days being "better" is. If life was so amazing, why was life-expectancy so low? Why were there so many suicides, rapes, murders, and thefts. Why were we recovering from a great depression if life was so incredible? Why couldn't women vote? A lot of people I know don't like to accept it, but it wasn't until fairly recently that women were given many equal rights that they have now. Women still get discriminated though, both in the workplace AND in the home, and people, to this day still pretend that it does not happen. I lived in the midwest in a pretty liberal area, and I couldn't believe how many people still surrendered themselves to this irrational way of thinking. Where does it lead? This film gives a pretty realistic portrait. Better yet it features some of the best performances of the decade! Visually, it is spectacular. Emotionally, there is rarely a false note. Alan, one of the co-authors of this blog loves this film and I hope to god that he writes his own review so that he can provide a good counter-argument, because he is the king of doing that. That's why I love him. This film is extremely well made to me, but I hate it so much. SO SO SO MUCH. I cannot even describe the hatred that I feel for this film without swearing, and I don't want to do that. While it may very well be the most honest reflection of the times of the many miserable white people that existed back then, it is dehumanizing to a degree that it becomes physically unpleasant to sit through, it teases us with a character so brilliantly written and with such presence that its audience manipulation becomes too overbearing, and it ends in such a horrific way that it makes the film feel less like an attack on the conservative attitudes in the first half of the twentieth century and more like a giant surrender. This film's horrific events are like something you'd read in a newspaper from 1953 that was never published.
4/10

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Home For the Holidays (1995, Jodie Foster)

Home for the Holidays is another one of those films that has grown on me since I first saw it. The first time I saw it I could not really get behind it. I admired the performances and the script, but the film itself felt oddly not involving to me. It felt like the sequel to a film that I had not yet seen and that I was missing a lot of key elements and plot points because of it. All of the characters come across quite casually with little to no obvious introduction or exposition. It does make the film a lot more realistic to a certain degree, but the only real problem I think that this film has is in its lack of accessibility in the plot or characters, which makes it a difficult film to warm up to for those who are seeing it for the first time. The film starts with Holly Hunter's character Claudia getting fired from her job as a painter and then getting dropped off at the airport by her daughter (who tells of her plans to sleep with her boyfriend before driving off) to go visit her apparently dysfunctional family over in Baltimore. She has a nervous breakdown on the phone toward the answering machine of her brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr... playing another gay character) who she has heard won't be able to make it to Thanksgiving, which leaves her in even more grief as he's the only one of her family members she can stand to be around it seems. Of course it turns out later that he not only does make it, but also brings a special guest who Claudia assumes is a new boyfriend of his. Her parents, Adele and Henry (Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft, an interesting couple to say the lease), always overindulge in the affection and the celebrations. Her aunt Glady (the underrated Geraldine Chaplin) is completely psychotic and has a habit of completely putting everybody off. Her sister Joanne (the equally underrated Cynthia Stevenson) is resentful and takes everything too seriously despite having a husband, Walter (Steve Guttenberg, who I will always remember from The Day After), who hates her family and two obnoxious kids. Lots of arguing, screaming, and backhanded compliments ensue, and at the end of the day Claudia has become friends with Tommy's friend Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott, AKA Clive Owen's doppleganger).
So it is a film about a nightmare of a family having to get together for the holidays and have to try and tolerate each other to the best of their abilities. Like I said above, not a very accessible film for first-time viewers. That being said, I love this film. It has nothing to do with my perverse fascination with destruction, chaos, and dysfunction. I am not a Jerry Springer fan (though I, like many, did go through a phase when I was younger). I love this film for a lot of reasons. The main reason, however, is because I truly feel like I know the characters. I'm not saying that I know people who are like these characters. I cannot really relate to this film at all. My family pretty much consist of fun-loving hippies who love each other, and when we have our disagreements we don't let things come to a boil and then blow up. We talk to one another like adults, even with the children. We all communicate constantly and cleanly and we've never had any large-scale disputes with one another. My mom and dad are divorced, but they still talk and they both still love their children and me just as much. Personal experience has nothing to do with my enjoyment of this film. I genuinely feel like I know these people in Home for the Holidays. This may not have the best accessibility of any film out there, but its re-watchability factor is at the top. This is a film that, like Dazed and Confused, you feel invited to re-watch and revisit. Every time you do it feels like you're revisiting the characters again, and depending on how long it's been since you've seen it that can feel like a long time. You are surprised how much you miss these people every time you re-watch it. You begin to understand their senses of humor, their ways of talking, and even their though-process. 
These people feel like family and you can't help but think of them as anything but, and that's where the ultimate strength of the film comes in. We are looking at people who speak the same language, who have experienced everything with one another, and who know each other well enough to call each other out when they're pulling a fast one. THAT, to me, is good acting! Sure, the writing has mostly everything to do with it, but without that chemistry this film would just be another casual screwball family film. The effort and detail these actors put into the material is what elevates the entire piece. Now, whenever I watch the film, I laugh at all the ridiculous events that take place, and more importantly I laugh with the characters because they are all so used to it. This film is inviting if you really try to let yourself get into it. I'm still amazing by the amount of clarity and realism it has, despite the over-the-top antics and imagery. I get a real sense of worry from Claudia, who's daughter could be losing her virginity while she's with her messed up family eating turkey and arguing with her sister. Tommy's character is especially unique in that he's a big fan of practical jokes. The funny thing about this film is that, even after seeing it so many times, I am still kept on edge by many of the things that he does despite the fact that I can recite many of his funniest lines. This film is definitely not one for those who like uplifting, feel-good kinds of Thanksgiving themed films. Hell, my favorite still is and always will be Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. However, if you're willing to invest yourself into the antics and histrionics of this twisted family, and you are fearless with your casual movie-watching abilities, I would highly recommend Home for the Holidays
9/10

Sunday, November 17, 2013

One Night Stand (1997, Mike Figgis)

Mike Figgis' follow-up picture to the masterpiece that is Leaving Las Vegas has only one major fault, and that is its main plot line. What we essentially have here is a film in which everything works, but the story that follows a married commercial director named Max (Wesley Snipes) and his one night stand in the city of New York with a woman named Karen (Nastassja Kinski) during his time in the city features every cliche in the book and is almost painfully predictable. Max goes New York and visits his homosexual best friend, Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.), who is HIV-positive. After missing his flight and then nearly getting mugged while hanging out Karen, who is staying at the same hotel as him, they sleep together. Upon returning home to his wife Mimi (Ming-Na), he is racked with guilt, as expected. Troubles in their marriage arise and of course it eventually becomes clear that there is trouble in paradise and that their marriage isn't working. Some time later he returns to Charlie, who is on his death bed after contracting full blown AIDS. It is there that he reacquaints with Charlie's brother Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan) and then meets his wife. Guess who his wife is? 

So yeah, the story goes through the usual twists and turns that you would expect from a typical Cinemax soft-core production. This does not mean that it is not fun to watch though. The performances are what ultimately pull us through. Actually, the performances in this film are all really excellent across the board, although a couple of the actors (Kyle MacLachlan in particular) are wasted and are not given enough material that is suited to their talents. The film has some very powerful sequences and some really well done ideas that come across with so much strength and originality and realism, but it also has a fair share of humor to it as well so as to at least lighten the admittedly adult material. Max in particular is a very likable character who is fun to watch and more interesting than a character like that has any right to be, and honestly it probably is Wesley Snipes' best performance as well. The ending of the film is somewhat weak and difficult to take seriously, but one has to applaud Figgis for being fearless enough about his storytelling abilities to go all the way with the admittedly far-fetched series of events that unfold as the picture nears closer and closer to its finish. The film also includes the usual cinematic experiments and visual character explorations that have become essential trademarks of Mike Figgis. It is a stylish picture that ultimately has everything going for it except its main plot. 
However, I do highly recommend the film because of one character in particular. The character of Charlie, played by Robert Downey Jr, is excellent, likable, and fascinating to watch and to listen to. This film, for a picture made in the 1990s, is a surprisingly progressive piece for the kind of material that it is. This is the part of this review in which I am going to get a little bit more personal, and I almost never do this or try to do this either. I am a homosexual who hates a lot of the gay portrayals seen in modern culture and in the everyday media. I feel that society's perception of homosexuality is, to this day, still quite unhealthy and I can't even really describe how much it has hurt my feelings to not really have a lot of good gay characters portrayed in film and television. The most frustrating thing for me to come to terms with, however, is the reality that many members of the gay community, including ones who I love and admire, are at fault. There are too many gay people I know who refuse to be themselves and instead try to be what society wants them to be and tells them they should be, and I think that it does, unfortunately feed the stereotype that a lot of self-destructive behavior is okay when in reality it isn't at all, and I had a lot of trouble growing up because of my self-esteem and because I grew up thinking that being gay was, unfortunately, something to be ashamed of. It wasn't my family either, who made me feel this way. Obviously they are at fault to some degree, but there is nothing that they did that entirely was the cause of my self-hatred or feelings of indignity and shame. It is admittedly difficult to live in a society that refuses to accept you, but obviously not impossible since I survived it all and am now very happy and comfortable with myself. 

Unfortunately, many gay people I know and love are so self-obsessed and so small-minded in regards to how other gay people are that they frown on any negative portrayal of a gay person. To me this is unfortunate, because a lot of them will not be able to get behind Robert Downey Jr's brutally sympathetic portrayal of a gay man who is on his last legs and who is dying slowly and painfully. It is a heart wrenching performance, one that brought me to tears multiple times. It is incredibly painful and emotional to witness. Seeing him coughing and struggling to breathe and to speak while dying in a hospital bed is extremely difficult to watch. Here is why I found the character to be inspiring, however. This is where my gay friends need to take note, because I am not trying to defend the character's actions that brought him this terrible disease. What he did and whether or not it was his fault is completely irrelevant to me. However, throughout the entire ordeal his character goes through, he remains unapologetic for who he is. Max asks him if he would like him to get a priest, not because the character feels as if Charlie has anything to atone for, but because he is clearly very scared of dying and wants him to be comforted during his frightening last moments. Charlie says no, and speaks very angrily about how everything that he has done was his own doing and was by his own choice. Charlie refuses to lie to a world that despises him and looks down on him and treats him like he is an animal and instead chooses to be strong and powerful despite being so scared and so helpless. Charlie is not a slave to society's pressures. This spoke to me very personally. Why does one of the strongest and most honest gay characters I've ever seen in a film have to be a man who is dying of AIDS? Ask yourself this question. What does this say about the way homosexuality is depicted? Charlie's best friend is a straight male who loves him and respects him more than his own brother does, and at the end of the day has a child named after him. Charlie is one of my favorite gay characters in any film (ironically, three of my favorite gay characters in film are all played by Robert Downey Jr), and it is because of him that I so highly recommend the film.
8/10

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)

The first experience I ever really had with The Shining didn't actually involve the film itself. Instead it was a Halloween episode of The Simpsons that was a spoof of the film. I was about six years old, and I thought that, even at the time, that was a really scary concept. Not so much the ghostly, supernatural aspects, but rather the idea of a beloved family member trying to kill you with an axe. It wasn't until I was ten years old that I watched the film. It was on a public channel, so obviously there were a lot of commercials and the film was altered for television, but I had never been so scared watching a film before. I remember being especially thrown off-kilter by the dreamlike quality of the film, often finding particularly implications or brief moments to be far more haunting and horrifying than anything of the extreme imagery or the events. It is considered one of the scariest films ever made. It is a relatively simple story about a family consisting of a mother, a father, and a young son who travels to a hotel with a sordid past that was built on Native-American burial grounds, and the father goes crazy and tries to butcher his family. It was a film that relied very strongly on atmosphere and claustrophobia, but more importantly it was the picture's realism that gave the film such a tense and gut-wrenching quality. It was the forth Stanley Kubrick film I'd seen, following 2001, Spartacus, and Barry Lyndon, and it was the second Stephen King related film I'd seen, the first being Stand By Me, which I saw on my ninth birthday, and at that time I naively thought he directed it rather than had written the book on which its based. The scariest thing about The Shining, to me, are the things we don't see. The things that I caught onto very quickly as a child and nowadays no longer observe as strongly because of how visually over-the-top the film is and how much more unnerving it is than a lot of people really realize. 
One of the key elements to truly understanding how deeply disturbing The Shining is actually comes from the character of Wendy Torrance. An interaction between the two other occasional posters (Alan and Calum) on this blog sparked this thoughtful observation.
"She gets so much hate for it. The biggest complaint I have heard is that she feels so unnatural and rehearsed.

But I say that is the point: She delivers perhaps the greatest depiction of a battered wife that I have seen. She is obviously the victim of severe domestic abuse. Just look at the way her hands tremble, the way her eyes dilate, as if attempting to sedate herself to hide from the reality as she lies to the doctor outright over the circumstances regarding Danny's broken arm.

If she sees overtly cheery upon arriving at the Overlook, it's because she is trying to hold on to what COULD be, in an effort to provide some normality for her child. If she seems very wooden around her husband, it is because she has to be, because she has been doomed to walk on eggshells in his presence for years.

And when he finally snaps, her breakdown, where she serves to react to the haunting (as all mothers have 'a bit of the shine in them too,') is exquisite to watch. Marvelous acting, a sight to behold. I don't think anyone but Duvall, with the pop eyes and lopsided grin, could have pulled off that aura of terror and utter anxiety so well. Still, you can feel the great love she has for her child. He is always put first. She takes care of him as much as she takes care of the hotel: Think of it - not once do you see Jack Torrance actually attending to any of the duties he is actually being paid to do. As such, poor Wendy is under great mental strain from the beginning of their stay.

It is well known that Kubrick made the set an unpleasant place to be for Duvall and that the filming process was excruciating (127 takes for the staircase/bat sequence alone). But regardless, you can FEEL all that Kubrick cultivated and I think Duvall really stepped it up as well.

Wendy Torrance: A fascinating character and one of Kubrick's most interesting women."
Going back to when I was younger, I often got the impression that the film was, at its heart, a film about spousal abuse. An outside observer who witnesses the scene in which Jack Torrance, Wendy's husband, lashes out at her in their room for suggesting to leave the hotel would catch onto this just like I did as a child. Wendy also gratuitously denies any fault that Jack may have had in injuring Danny, stating he just had a little too much to drink and that his actions were something a parent does a hundred times with their child. To dislocate the shoulder of a child would be viewed by an aggressive action by any outside party, so her rationalizing it helps the audience rationalize it as well. She plays the role of a normal housewife, but in reality she is at the end of her rope. She hides her scars, but she cannot hide little Danny's, and this is also why a lot of people criticize her performance so much. It is uncomfortable, unglamorous, and undignified, and it is a magnificent portrayal. Shelley Duvall's performance truly is scarily realistic and emotionally intense, because it is the depiction of a woman who acts not out of love or desperation or frustration, but out of pure fear. This would explain why Jack Nicholson's character, Jack Torrance, is so overly confident, upbeat, and dapper. He has grown used to his position of supposed authority in his family. That's not to say that film paints him to be outright evil. It does not in any way, and that is one of the many things that makes the film so scary. Evil is never once rationalized or given any sort of perspective. Evil is shown to be non-discriminate and capable of existing in even the most loving human beings. 
There are many aspects of the film that are subtilely off-kilter, however, and that's what truly gives the film that added sense of discomfort and isolation. Many visual elements give the film a paranoid quality that helps the cold and clinical feel of the hotel come through despite all of the various colors, artifacts, paintings, portraits, and decorations that fill the hotel. Objects and locations of pure beauty become overbearingly terrifying, such as the hedge maze or even a simple straightforward hallway that we've travelled down again and again. The isolation of the hotel only begins to set in with the viewer because we see so much of it and even, in a sense, get to really develop a sense of understanding and placement as the picture continues on. This isn't the only film that Kubrick has done this with, but it is the only film he's done that makes strong use of such a small location. We do not get to go outside of the hotel very often, and when we do it serves no purpose other than to heighten the sense of being stuck in a small space for an unknown period of time. The audience slowly begins to feel like they too could find their way around the Overlook Hotel, and that sense of familiarity and coincidence is a theme expressed in the film itself when the picture lightly implies a possible reincarnation that may have taken place. Jack Torrance states, in one scene that many folks I know do not seem to remember, that he feels he has been here before. What does that imply about Danny or the future of this family or how they even grew to become a collective trio? Similarly to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and how it explores the mind of a psychopath, the film never states what exactly happened or how, but the audience can sense that it is something extremely horrible and too depraved for anyone to even begin to understand.
This is one of the themes, however, that Stephen King was able to explore adequately in his novel and in his miniseries adaptation. Jack Torrance becomes a much more relatable character and therefore we care for him more as he is the centerpiece of the picture. For that, I commend him With this film, however, the main character is the hotel. The characters are all very small in comparison, and this is even explicitly stated in one shot. Viewers who are desperate to find anyone to connect with, however, may be disappointed to find that the one main character with any relatable qualities gets the least amount of screen time and who only appears in the hotel near the beginning and near the end. Dick Hallorann, played by the late Scatman Crothers, is perhaps the most important character in the film. I'll go into why more later on, but the most unusual aspects of the film have everything to do with the location and almost nothing to do with the characters. The location seems to change and shape-shifts throughout the picture, and near the end of the film is when it is especially evident during the sequence where Wendy Torrance is trying to escape the hotel and we are bombarded with horrible and disgusting images of death, mutilation, and (unless you watched the edited version first like I did) sexual dysfunction. None of the locations she runs through look at all familiar to us. We have never seen any of these places before. Did these rooms and locations always exist? Where are they and how come we have never seen them? We can almost get a sense of these rooms existing at some point, but why are they so unfamiliar? What are they for and who are all these dead people? The viewer truly gets a sense that the hotel is trying to trap the  character, and we never truly know whether or not its for real. We already know that the images she sees are not, but are the rooms? 
The exterior of the house is almost worse, suggesting a sort of parallel dimension that seems to exist between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The Overlook Hotel looks so old, like some kind of a large cottage, and yet the interior looks almost like it could be a museum of some sort. There are so many decorated walls and stain glass windows that its easy to see why the location is so unique and popular, especially considering that this seems to be a middle class family with a father who really wants to finish his novel but seems unable to do so due to how distracting and colorful the location is. For a writer, he doesn't spend a lot of time writing, or so we think. When we discover that he has been writing, and more importantly WHAT he has been writing, we feel somewhat betrayed, not only by the film but also by what we have been told about him and about his habits as a human being. He has betrayed us as both a caretaker and as a novelist, and so we are forced to see him in the most comfortable way possible. To the audience, he becomes a scary monster. To Danny, that's exactly what he is. Danny is, essentially, like a character out of a faerie tale, and the film feels like some kind of Brothers Grimm story. Danny is like a little rabbit running from the big bad wolf. Or like the road runner from the coyote, like in his favorite cartoon that he watches throughout the film. We come to learn that he loves cartoons like Bugs Bunny and therefore adopts the character's tricks when it comes to evading his father. We've all seen the cartoons where the Rabbit, finding a strategy on outsmarting the hunter, manipulates the environment to trick the predator into thinking he is somewhere where he is not. Danny does the same thing here, except that the difference is that this is the cold, harsh reality, and there is a maniacal sense of morbid dark humor and stomach-churning humiliation that Kubrick places in one of the film's final images that leaves the audience severely uncomfortable and sickened. 
As for Dick Halloran, I see him as a sort of god of the hotel. He is familiar with the hotel's tricks and schemes and sees it as an appropriate time to warn Danny Torrance against them, seeing as how he can shine, and tells him of the many different kinds of images that the hotel can use to trick you and scare you. Halloran also tells him that none of it is real, implying that nothing will hurt him. We are led to assume, however, that he merely does this to avoid scaring the boy, and so when it is discovered that things in the hotel actually can hurt people, as we are able to discern from the bruises and scrapes found on Danny's body later in the film after he escapes from Room 237, we can no longer put our faith in God's word. Danny has been injured, and therefore requires actual physical assistance from God. Halloran is the only sense of authority and safety that this film ever gets. We already know that he is frightened based upon the infamously haunting look on his face in his hotel room once Danny finally channels him. Up until this point in the film, Danny is the character we are following. He is the only character with any identifiable traits and many of the glimpses of the hotel we get are through his eyes. Once he is injured, however, Danny enters a catatonic state that renders him helpless throughout the rest of the film. He becomes both the beacon for outside help and the bearer of bad news, and only acts when his life is at stake. The only thing that Halloran knows is that there is trouble at the hotel. He does not know the circumstances and is therefore blind to the situation, thereby putting both himself and Danny at a greater risk than they would normally. This is possibly the most humane mistake ever made in any horror film, and it is one of the only things that is done entirely supernaturally. This is why the characters are doomed, and that's why the film's sense of horror feels so real, despite the supernatural aspects.
Then several years later I watched the film uncut on one of my father's VHS tapes, and that's when I discovered that the film was actually very sexual. While the film itself has no gratuitous sex scenes in it, this is a very adult-oriented film when it comes to depicting the sexual deviancy that exists under the surface. None of this existed in the edited-for-TV version that I saw. There are only two scenes that are removed entirely, but the film itself has a really build up to it that feels very violating. Watching the film gives you the same feeling you get where there's a creepy person leaning closer and closer to you, and it is done through the use of audio and visual perspective. The shots in the film rise higher and higher throughout the picture, making both the hallways of the hotel and the hedge maze appear larger and wider than they were before. Again, this was not an uncommon technique of Kubrick's, but all of Kubrick's films have an element of sexuality to them. This one has, by far, the most sexually depraved moment in any Kubrick film. It is the scene, visually reminiscent of Pasolini's Salo, in which Jack Torrance discovers what lies beyond the walls of room 237 and is forever marked. The film is both an attack on male sexuality as well as a darkly humorous jab at masculinity in general in its assault of masculine power. It is ironic that perhaps one of the most frightening images in a film about a man who tries to kill his family with an axe is the sight of a woman, but more importantly it is a scene that not only exploits our fear of sex but also of death. Seeing the scene for the first time left a humongous impression on me, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't consider it my favorite scene in the film. It's a powerful scene for me because it not only could only work in this film, but it also helps to further establish that faerie tale element with a firmly cemented entrance into a witch's dark lair. 
I almost never talk about novels when I review the films that are based upon them. Film and paper are two completely different forms of artistic expression, completely different both in terms of form, structure, emotion, perspective, and thematic elevation. I am, however, mystified as to why Kubrick chose King's novel, The Shining, to adapt. It doesn't necessarily make any sense to try and put simple logic behind many of Kubrick's actions as he was a very eccentric and strange person who made some of the strangest and most thought-provoking films ever made, but I also feel that some people are onto something when they describe his style as being cold and distant. Many people find his films to be lacking an important human element that is integral for the types of genre pictures he directed. However, I feel that this was because he knew more about the human condition that many may realize. It is entirely evident, throughout The Shining, that Kubrick sympathized with all three of the main characters very much and I wonder if this was what intrigued him when he read the novel. Is it the idea of someone being surrounded by death and having to stay isolated in a location that represents the death of so many people? I think a lot of it had to do with Kubrick's fascination with the American dream and how perverted that can become. Remember, this is the guy who directed Lolita and then later went on to direct Eyes Wide Shut. What this project represented to him, I feel, was an escape from everyday suburbia, at least in terms of the location. To me, this is why he uses so many mirror tricks and so many unusual perspective changes. He wants to distort the viewer's perception on the nature of reality and to thwart the idea of possible escape at every opportunity. It is also easy to see why King hated the film so much. The novel was a personal thing for him, written by him while isolated at a hotel and while struggling with alcoholism just like Jack Torrance. Kubrick's choice to turn Jack Nicholson's character into a monster probably felt like a personal attack against his writing and against him as a person. It's completely understandable, but I think its also important to realize that Kubrick was not always a tactful person, especially when it came to things that he was passionate about. 
Bottom line, however, despite all the criticisms, the angry fans, the disapproval of Stephen King (and master filmmaker David Cronenberg, whom the film didn't resonate with), and the Golden Raspberry Award nominations for Stanley Kubrick and Shelley Duvall, The Shining is, indisputably, a horror masterpiece of epic proportions. Along with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is my favorite American horror film of all time. Ever since I've watched it, a year doesn't go by without a horrible image from the film passing by my subconscious. I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat at night, with scenes from the film invading my dreams and giving me nightmares. When I take a shower, I can occasionally see the sight of a woman's naked legs behind the curtains. Whenever I stay at hotels, whenever there's a snowstorm and I'm isolated in my home, whenever I see a child riding a tricycle,  whenever I go to a job interview, whenever I see someone get drunk, I think of this film. This is one of those rare horror films that goes beyond simply scaring and disturbing the audience. This leaks into your subconscious and begs you to scrub your brain with a brush. I love films to death, and while horror is not my favorite genre I have grown to develop a deep appreciation for it and generally like to seek out whatever is out there. I am, however, not looking forward to seeing the film that will scare me more than The Shining
10/10

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sinister (2012, Scott Derrickson)

The part of Sinister that resonated the most with me was the unspoken fascination that an artist has with the macabre and the perverse. One mustn't always look further than their local newspaper to uncover the sordid details of the world around us, but discovering something truly awful such as unfound footage of the final moments of another person's life before they were brutally murdered in cold blood. Now that is something that not a lot of artists discover, and its an experience that few have and even fewer would want to have, or so they claim. The main character in Sinister is someone who takes after the heart of Alfred Hitchcock. The only major difference is that Ellison Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) writes about reality. He's a true crime novelist who had one major hit and hasn't reached that level since. His family is troubled, his marriage is on the rocks, and he drinks a little too much. Fortunately for us horror fans (unfortunately for the squeamish) we are given a fearless main character in Ellison Oswalt. He is a man who is willing to explore the bowels of hell in order to get recognition, so long as he doesn't get too close to the flames. The local sheriff (played by actor and politician Fred Dalton Thompson) hates him. His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is already pissed at him for neglecting his family. His daughter Ashley is a budding artist who draws pictures on the walls of her bedroom, and his son Trevor is suffering some deep seated issues. They move into a house where a murder took place in the backyard. The only one, of course, who knows this information, is Ellison. When he comes across a box full of super 8 footage of various families getting murdered, his fascination gets the better of him. He has never been this close before to the real thing. Despite earning the help of a Deputy (played by the very fearless and underrated James Ransone from The Wire, Red Hook Summer, Ken Park, and A Dirty Shame) and a professor (the always amazing Vincent D'Onofrio who, unlike Ransone, actually went uncredited) things don't go according to plan.
Going back to the whole perverse fascination aspect of the film, this is another picture (like 8MM and Manhunter) in which a character gets in over their head in a troubling series of events that they have no control over. What makes this one different and fresh is its slow pace and its memorable atmosphere. This is the kind of film that doesn't even need to find an excuse for its characters to wander around in the dark. Many of the scenes could have been just as scary in bright rooms instead, but the best scenes in the film work primarily because they take place in pitch black locations in which the only source of light comes from a flashlight. Unlike most horror films, however, the flashlight here always works and isn't low on batteries and doesn't flicker out. That means that we won't have any scenes in which monsters randomly jump out of the darkness and say boo. However, this also means that if the light does shine on a demonic monster or psychotic knife welding murderer that there will be no immediate escape because once you see him he sees you and no amount of darkness is going to change that. Sinister, like the equally scary Insidious, does a fantastic job of playing with the head of the viewer and getting under the skin of those who are frightened by the obscured sight. While Insidious did a better job of shocking the viewer, however, Sinister has one important thing that Insidious didn't have. It has the power of the location itself in favor of the story. Sinister may not have that many jolts, but it more than makes up for it by being so brilliantly well-contained. The few surprising images that Sinister has are very powerful and remain powerful upon reflection. These images don't rely on shocking the viewer with graphic violence (in fact, Sinister has almost no onscreen blood or violence in it) but rather on the viewer's imagination as to what the images could imply. Rather than force us to cover our eyes, Sinister works because of what you don't see. It messes with our heads and it leaves us with a series of powerful images that we can draw our own conclusions on. 
Ultimately, when looking at the film at an objective viewpoint, there are a number of things that people can nitpick. The origin of the murder tapes or the figures that appear throughout them still doesn't entirely make sense once the credits roll. We can be given an answer, but an explanation is going to be needed more for viewers who prefer their films to have a lot of meat and content. This isn't the kind of film for that, and so those looking for logic in their horror films should probably stay away. The film also does make some pretty big leaps with its character decisions, though if it didn't we wouldn't have a movie. This is the kind of film that, like The Amityville Horror, will be remembered more for its ideas than any particular moments, though this film has more value to me because it has a main character who I can relate to, it has a family that I care about and find fascinating, and it features ideas and sequences that I'll never be able to shake. The film plays plenty with the idea of paranoia and what's real and what isn't, but even more than that it actually provides us with possible ideas as to why what we think is happening may not actually be happening. The film gives us just enough time to allow us to get inside the head of its subjects, we are given plenty of sympathy for the characters around him, we are presented with motivations and characteristics for all the characters in the film, and we are left with a very creepy ending that leaves our heads running around in circles. To some it may seem silly, but to me this is a brilliantly made horror film.
9/10