Archive for January, 2012

The Shining (1980)

Posted: January 30, 2012 in 1980, American, Horror

Adapted from the 1977 Steven King novel the plot of the film version differs quite dramatically from that of the original book.

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson the film tells the story of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer who takes a job as winter caretaker at The Overlook Hotel with the aim of using the time to write his new book.  During his interview at the beginning of the film the hotels manager, Stuart Ullman, makes a point of telling him about one of the previous caretakers, Charles Grady, who got cabin fever and killed his family before committing suicide.  Jack takes the job anyway and is joined at The Overlook by his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who is gifted with supernatural abilities.  When the family arrive on the last day of the season Danny meets the head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who also has the same abilities as Danny and explains that the ability is called ‘Shining’.  During their conversation Danny asks about Room 237, Dick tells him the hotel has a ‘Shine’ of it’s own and many memories, not all of which are good, and that he should stay away from Room 237.

As time goes by The Overlook get’s snowed in, becoming more secluded as the telephone lines go down and contact with the outside world becomes more infrequent.  Jack takes over The Colorado Lounge, a vast recreation room, to start writing his novel and becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to make progress.  Whilst trying to write Jack is frequently interrupted by Wendy until one day he snaps at her and tells her not to disturb him whilst he’s working, Jack becomes more isolated in the vast room reflecting the increasing isolation of The Overlook itself.

Danny amuses himself during the course of their tenancy by playing in the corridors and rooms of The Overlook but is plagued by visions and nightmares caused by his Shining ability.  Eerie music sets the mood for Danny’s ability whilst disturbing images of twin girls, mutilated corpses, and rivers of blood flowing through the corridors of The Overlook flash across the screen.  Kubrick plays on the viewers nerves through both the visuals and sound to create an uncomfortable atmosphere to the film rather than using shock tactics to scare the viewer.  Long tracking shots are used to great effect in The Shining creating long, drawn out scenes where you wait with bated breath for the pay off.  The most famous of these scenes is when the camera follows Danny as he rides his Big Wheel through the corridors of the hotel with the soundtrack alternating between virtual silence as the plastic wheels cross the carpeted areas before exploding with noise when they move onto the wooden floors.

Whilst Kings novel plays up to the supernatural forces existing in The Overlook which first effect Danny, then Jack and finally Wendy, Kubrick’s adaptation plays down this aspect seeming more that the isolation and frustration felt are the causes for Jack’s descent into madness.  It’s never made clear as to whether the party goers Jack encounters in The Gold Room in the film are actually spirits or manifestations of his madness and the only shared supernatural encounter is that of the woman in Room 237 experienced by both Danny and Jack.

The Shining has become a classic horror film and has been parodied many times since it’s release including The Simpsons – Tree House of Horror V episode, Family Guy, and 30 Seconds to Mars video for ‘The Kill’ and contains one of the most quoted lines in film ‘Here’s Johnny!’ which was actually improvised by Nicholson at the time and almost didn’t make it in to the film.

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Metropolis (1927)

Posted: January 26, 2012 in 1927, Arthouse, German, Sci-Fi, Silent

I’ve had Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie epic on DVD for some time but have never seemed to find the time to watch it (there are some benefits to being off work sick).

Set in a futuristic dystopia the film explores the relationship between the oppressed Workers, who live in a vast underground complex and run the machines that power Metropolis, and the pampered Managers, who live in luxury in skyscrapers on the surface.  One day, whilst relaxing in the Eternal Garden, Freder Fredersen – son of Joh Fredersen the creator of Metropolis – encounters a beautiful young woman from the worker city, enchanted by her he follows her into the depths where he witnesses a terrible industrial accident.  He returns to his father telling him of the plight of the workers, not knowing that his father already knows, before returning to the worker city where he persuades a worker called #11811, Georgy, to trade places.  After a hellish 10 hour shift Freder follows the workers to an underground cavern where he finds the young woman he met earlier, Maria, preaching a message of peace and patience in waiting for the Mediator to arrive to unite the Head (the Managers) and the Hands (the Workers).  Freder realises that he is the Mediator and reveals himself to Maria at the end of the sermon when the other Workers have left.

Whilst this is happening Joh visits Rotwang, the mad scientist, about some maps that have been handed to him by Grot, a foreman for the Workers.  The two were friends but were rivals for the love of a woman, Hel, who eventually married Joh and died giving birth to their son Freder.  Rotwang reveals his creation, The Machine Man which he plans to give the likeness of Hel, to Joh and explains that the maps are of the catacombs below the Worker city.  Leading Joh through subterranean tunnels they secretly observe Maria’s sermon, not realising that Freder is in the crowd, and Joh commands Rotwang to use The Machine Man to clone Maria and incite the Workers to riot so that he can use force to bring them back in line.  Rotwang kidnaps Maria and holds her hostage whilst her clone goes about her work.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made Metropolis features brilliant cinematography, set design, and special effects that are stunning considering the technology of the time. The architecture portrayed in the film is based on Modernism and Art Deco, a new style in Europe which had not achieved mass production and as such was considered a symbol of the upper classes.  The effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created effects that were widely acclaimed for many years most notably The Schüfftan Process, which utilised mirrors to ‘place’ actors into miniature sets, and has been used by many other film makers over the years including Alfred Hitchcock in Blackmail (1929) and The 39 Steps (1935)  and as recently as 2003 when Peter Jackson used the technique when filming The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Metropolis has influenced modern cinema through both it’s imagery and storyline and without it we wouldn’t have films like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, both of which borrow their visions of a future earth from Lang’s.  In addition the film’s imagery has been paid homage in various music videos such as Queen’s Radio Ga Ga (the majority of which uses clips from the film) and Madonna’s Express Yourself (which ends with the closing quote from Metropolis – “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the Hand and the Mind”) and was even, loosely, adapted to an anime by Osamu Tezuka in 2001.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Posted: January 25, 2012 in 1964, American, Comedy

Based on the Peter George novel Red Alert, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy satirizes the theme of a nuclear scare, in particular that of mutual assured destruction, in which each side is supposed to be deterred from a nuclear war by the prospect of a global cataclysm regardless of who actually won.

When Kubrick was writing the first draft of the script he did so with the intention of making it as a serious drama however changed to a comedy when he realised that ‘one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question‘.

Starring Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and George C. Scott the story concerns a deranged US Air Force General who, unknown to his superiors, orders a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia.  It then follows the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), his advisors, and an RAF Captain, Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again), as they try to recall the bombers and avert nuclear disaster.  The film separately follows the crew,  including James Earl Jones in his first film role, of one of the bombers piloted by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as they attempt to deliver their payload.

Columbia agreed to finance the film on provision that Sellers would play at least 4 major roles, Kubrick accepted the demand but Sellers only ended up playing three of the four roles originally written for him.  He was originally scripted to play the role of Kong, despite being reluctant to do so due to the workload and feeling that he wouldn’t be able to do the role justice, and the role eventually went to Picken’s after Sellers sprained his ankle and was unable to work in the cramped cockpit set.  In the final version of the film Sellers played the roles of RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, US President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character Dr. Strangelove, who doesn’t actually appear in the book, an ex-nazi mad scientist who’s portrayal is an homage to the character of Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.  General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) was an over-the-top parody of gung-ho americanism, Scott wasn’t comfortable playing Turgidson this way so Kubrick got him to play the character this way for warm up shots before doing ‘real’ takes, ultimately Kubrick used these shots which led to Scott refusing to ever work with him again.

The film was shot entirely on set at Shepperton Studios in London as Sellers was unable to travel abroad at the time as he was in the middle of divorce proceedings.  There were 3 main sets, General Rippers office, the interior of the B52 Bomber, and finally the War Room which was a massive set some 40 meters long by 30 meters wide with a 35 meter high ceiling, walls covered with strategic maps, and glossy black floors – a design that was later recreated for the video for Muses single Time is Running Out in 2007.

Kubrick managed to insert elements of satire throughout the film from character names, President Merkin Muffley being a prime example (a Merkin is a pubic hair wig, the president is bald and his last name is Muffley which are both homages to a Merkin) to visual images, the soldiers fighting to take control of Burpleson Air Force Base against the backdrop of a billboard reading ‘Peace is our Profession’.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Posted: January 20, 2012 in 1997, American, Drama, Mystery, Neo-noir

Curtis Hanson’s stylish neo-noir adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel paints a dark picture of the LAPD in the mid 1950’s depicting an organisation steeped in corruption and brutality.

Trimming significant excess from the source the film follows three radically different L.A. detectives as they investigate a shooting at an all night diner.  Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a slick narcotics detective and technical advisor for a popular TV drama whose ‘movie star’ veneer masks a man whose sold out.  Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) is a violent yet emotionally damaged homicide detective with his own moral code.  Finally, Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious, driven, by-the-book career cop whose detective father was killed on the job.  Each detective investigates the shooting in their own way but soon their paths cross as they discover there’s more to this crime than they first thought and soon they become embroiled in a complicated plot of corruption, drugs, murder, and prostitution.

Ed Exley – All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father.

Bud White – Now’s your chance… he died in the line of duty, didn’t he?

Nominated for 9 Academy Awards (it won two – Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Kim Basinger, and Best Screenplay – Adapted) L.A. Confidential was universally acclaimed for both it’s stars and it’s visual style.  Hanson and the films cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, studied many of the films of the era including The Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, and The Tarnished Angels in order to achieve the right atmosphere however in order to avoid a feeling of nostalgia they shot like a contemporary film and used more naturalistic lighting than in a classic film noir.

Ultimately L.A. Confidential allows the hope of the period to shine through the gritty and rotten heart of it’s subject matter and draws the viewer in, engaging them, so that they become a part of the story.  Whilst you may hate the main characters initially for their thuggish, uptight, or slick ways I defy you not to start to care about them as their story develops and they begin to evolve before your eyes.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Posted: January 19, 2012 in 1941, American, Drama, Mystery

Hailed as “the greatest movie of all time” Citizen Kane was Orson Welles debut feature film which he not only starred in but also directed and co-wrote the screenplay for.  Having your debut film heaped with such praise should be taken as a major point of pride but considering that Welles was only 24 at the time it should be considered so much more.

Unfortunately with 70 years of praise and hype behind it new viewers should be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed by the film upon first watching it.  Subsequent viewings however will yield more enjoyment as the viewer becomes more impressed by it’s unique visual style (cinematographer Gregg Toland developed a technique for ensuring the the foreground, middle-ground, and background were all in focus simultaneously), simple yet engaging storyline, and outstanding acting.

Welles stars as the titular character of Charles Foster Kane, a reclusive millionaire media mogul, who dies virtually alone within the first 5 minutes leaving the contents of his mansion, his businesses, and his last word ‘Rosebud’ as his legacy.  It’s the latter of these that becomes the catalyst for the film as a group of newsreel men set out to interview Kane’s friends, family, and business associates in an effort to decipher the meaning behind this last word.  The interviews are told though a series of flashbacks to various periods in Kane’s life making use of non-linear storytelling to develop Kane’s character based on the interviewees perception of the man himself.  Masterfully controlled and edited the film avoids becoming confusing and serves to show a fully rounded individual and his progression from likeable, impetuous youth to grizzled, embittered old man over the (nearly) 2 hour run time.

During shooting newspaper magnate William Randal Hearst, with whom viewers can see an obvious comparison to Kane, attempted everything he could to prevent the film from being made even going so far as to accuse Orson Welles of being a Communist to prevent it’s release.  Although many consider the film to be based on Hearst’s life Welles claimed that the story was a composite on many individuals from that particular era, this can be seen to be true as there are also elements from the life of Samuel Insull (a Chicago utilities magnate from the time) represented in the film.

If I hadn’t been very rich I might have been a really great man

– Charles Foster Kane

Despite it’s success the film was originally a flop when it was first released and was universally booed at the 1941 Academy Awards every time one of it’s 9 nominations was announced.  The film was re-released for the public in the 1950’s after spending nearly a decade locked up in the RKO vaults.

Shot in black and white this 1965 exploitation film is considered by many to be one of the best trash cinema films ever made.

The film tells the story of three drag racing go-go dancers – Varla, the group’s leader and a psychopath, Rosie, an Italian with a secret crush on Varla, and Billie, a bubbly blonde who only wants to have fun.  Whilst drag racing in the desert the trio meet a couple leading to Varla eventually killing the man and kidnapping his girlfriend.  Whilst at a gas station the, now, four see a crippled old man and his son.  When the gas station attendant tells them that they live on a remote ranch with a stash of cash Varla begins to hatch a plan to relieve the old man of the money.  The group trail the family back to their ranch and, after searching for the money on the grounds, try to get the location of the money from the old mans sons but when this fails Varla’s psychopathic side comes out.

At the time the film featured scenes of gratuitous violence and sexuality, although the latter is tame considering Myer’s taste for women with considerable assets, and explores the theme of violence in women.  Considering the 40+ years that have passed since this film was originally shot and released these scenes seems tame by today’s standards.

Whilst the plot is simple the story has a tendency to jump around and the characters never get developed so there isn’t any understanding as to why Varla simply snaps and kills people and the other two girls don’t seem to exist other than to be ordered around by her.  Despite this many believe that Myer’s portrayal of women, especially in Faster, Pussycat! depicts them as strong figures and as such can be considered a positive force for female empowerment.

Given it’s cult status there’s no surprise that Faster, Pussycat! has inspired various imitations, such as 2009’s Bitch Slap, and music video homages like Queens of the Stone Age’s video for 3’s & 7’s.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Posted: January 12, 2012 in 2008, Asian, Western

The title to this 2008 Korean movie pays homage to Sergio Leone’s famous western ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’ and is the first Korean Western to be filmed in nearly 40 years.

Set in Manchuria, a largely desert like area of China similar to the wild west of America, during the 1930’s this tells the story of three characters chasing a treasure map for radically different reasons.  The Good, Park Do-won, is a bounty hunter with a deadly aim who is following the map hoping it will lead him to his quarry.  The Bad, Park Chang-yi, is a cold-blooded killer whose motives are unclear for wanting the map but is the main target for Park Do-won.  The Weird, Yoon Tae-goo, is a bumbling train robber who steals the map before he realises what it actually is and is then pursued for the remainder of the film by not only Park Chang-yi but also the Japanese Army and the Ghost Market Gang who want the map for their own selfish reasons.

Whilst light on actual story the film is wonderfully choreographed with plenty of bloody fight scenes and stunning visuals as the chase continues on at break neck speed.  With an escalating body count throughout the course of the film there’s something here for lovers of action and this kind of genre even if the plot is about as deep as a puddle.