Archive for March 2013

Room 237

March 30, 2013

room2373900x506Everyone who loves movies needs to see Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, if only to roll their eyes at certain points. The documentary is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining — not the making of the film, but, really, the deconstruction of it. Ascher interviews five theorists who have very different perspectives on The Shining and what Kubrick was trying to say in it. Bill Blakemore thinks the movie is really about the genocide of the American Indians. Geoffrey Cocks opines that it’s really about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns makes much of the supposed minotaur imagery and points out the “impossible” architecture of the haunted Overlook Hotel. Jay Weidner thinks the film was really Kubrick’s acknowledgment that he helped NASA fake the moon landing. John Fell Ryan talks about showing two prints of The Shining projected one over the other, one running forward and the other backward, an experiment that yields some memorably weird and oddly beautiful images.

The first order of business might be to ask, Why this film? Why not another ghost movie from the same year, like The Changeling? Why not another Stephen King adaptation, like The Dead Zone? Why not another Kubrick film — ah, but there we answer part of the question, because a cursory surf around the web will unearth countless deep-dish analyses or close readings of practically every Kubrick film. His swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, is really Kubrick telling dark truths about the Illuminati, who promptly assassinated him days after he finished it. Well, at least a guy on the internet says so. I think the same guy also says Lady Gaga is an Illuminati tool. He’d probably find Illuminati stuff in The Shining, too.

The thing is, you can find anything you want to see in any movie. Rodney Ascher could as well have found five people who discovered profound meanings in Dude, Where’s My Car? But The Shining is the perfect launching pad for a movie about obsessive film theorists, because Kubrick in general attracts theories like lint, and this film in particular is perhaps his most stubbornly mystifying work. Pauline Kael’s review noted the film’s many “deliberate time dislocations.” Stephen King himself didn’t like or understand the movie, and still doesn’t. Years later, King would show how little he understood what made not only Kubrick’s film but his own book work, and wrote a terribly boring TV adaptation of The Shining, a clip of which we see in Room 237. The majority of the footage here, of course, comes from the Kubrick version, as well as from all his other films.

Some of it I enjoyed; some of it I’d heard (or read) before; some of it made my eyes glaze over and made me want to revisit The Shining. In form, Room 237 is more of a video essay than a documentary; the video essay is, to these eyes, an unfortunate bastard child of the close-reading film review, apparently made by people who don’t like to write, for people who don’t like to read. Copious use of other people’s work is an easy bonus for the video essayist. Room 237 also doesn’t show the five theorists onscreen — we just hear their voices — which tends to emphasize the “text” of what they’re saying instead of offering an Errol Morris-type study of five obsessives fondling Kubrick’s film like the blind men touching the elephant in the ancient fable. It’s a pillar! No, it’s a snake!

Kubrick himself preferred to let his movies speak for themselves, which for some viewers creates a void they rush to fill. Amusingly, Kubrick’s former assistant Leon Vitali, who was there at the time, scoffed at many of the theorists’ claims in a recent New York Times interview. Sometimes a typewriter is just a typewriter, even if it changes color; sometimes a chair that’s there in one shot and gone in a later shot is just a continuity goof. Directors — especially those who started before the advent of home video — are far less concerned with editing gaffes than many would suspect. “That’s the only usable shot, and that’s the shot we’re using” is what most disappearing-chair mysteries boil down to. Directors hope the narrative will move you past the small errors, but of course when a movie is available to watch again and again in your living room, the disappearing chair becomes noticeable.

I’ve seen The Shining more than a few times myself. What do I think it’s about? My take, briefly: it’s another chapter in Kubrick’s epic, decades-long doctoral thesis about the ongoing folly of man. Jack Torrance (man) has always been the caretaker (murderer). King, an active alcoholic when he wrote the book, meant the story to illustrate generational, genetic frailty (Jack’s father was an abusive drunk). Kubrick took that and magnified it into a statement about the timeless rivers of blood (redrum) running through human history. The theories about the Indian genocide and the Holocaust would seem to fit neatly inside mine, but I’m going to do us both a favor and let the moon-landing thing pass in silence.

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Olympus Has Fallen

March 24, 2013

Gerard-Butler-Olympus-Has-FallenEvery week, according to legend, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller participates in a special Movie Night with like-minded freaks and friends. Movie Night has many rules, one of them being that if the title of a movie is spoken in the movie, everyone must applaud. I reflected on that ritual about half an hour into Olympus Has Fallen, when a Secret Service agent (Cole Hauser) intones into his wrist microphone — you guessed it — “Olympus has fallen.” Nobody at my semi-packed screening applauded; Penn and his posse must’ve been otherwise engaged. Nobody applauded at anything else, either, even at the many cheesily patriotic moments such as the one in which the bloodied Secretary of Defense (poor Melissa Leo) defiantly recites the Pledge of Allegiance while being dragged off by terrorists.

A moronic synthesis of Die Hard and Red Dawn, Olympus Has Fallen (applause) pits One Lone Man — ex-Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) — against North Korean terrorists. North Korea certainly does seem to be the accepted Big Bad of recent action cinema; last fall’s Red Dawn remake — which, like Olympus Has Fallen (applause), was distributed by FilmDistrict — famously changed its Chinese invaders to North Koreans. The movie’s politics are goofy in the manner of the hundreds of ’80s action flicks just like this one; in any event, the terrorists act independently of their country, and their ringleader (Rick Yune) is driven more by revenge than by ideology.

Director Antoine Fuqua has made eight features, of which I have seen four; is that enough evidence for me to declare him an unexciting and impersonal action director with a little style? Fuqua stages the initial assault on the White House with some bloody snap and vigor, but after that it’s a lot of footage of Gerard Butler skulking around dark hallways and neutralizing terrorists, crosscut with scenes at the Pentagon where people, including Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett, scowl and fret. The President (Aaron Eckhart) is being held hostage in his bunker along with most of his top officials, and he must be rescued before the terrorists gain full access to the three-part code that will blow up all of our nukes in their silos. The President’s son is also hiding in the White House somewhere, and Banning must find him. Fortunately that goal is knocked out of the way relatively early, or else we’d be thinking “Who cares about a kid? Olympus has fallen!” (Applause.)

A prologue of sorts tells us why Banning is no longer a Secret Service agent: one snowy night, the President’s vehicle went halfway off a bridge, and Banning wasn’t able to save the First Lady (Ashley Judd) before the First Car plunged into the icy drink. What we take from this is not “What a sad backstory” but “I guess Ashley Judd gotta eat.” The movie is in other respects a halfway house for actors who used to have better careers, like Bassett, Radha Mitchell, Dylan McDermott, and Robert Forster. Olympus Has Fallen (applause) isn’t much of an actor’s showcase anyway, though Aaron Eckhart gets to add another Big No moment to his highlight reel. Butler does what he can, but Banning lacks the Jersey street wit of John McClane, not to mention McClane’s vulnerability. If we’re supposed to feel any apprehension on Banning’s behalf, we don’t, because he’s presented from the word go as the best and toughest Secret Service agent ever.

Every so often, competing films on the same theme go into production independently of each other and then race to see which will hit theaters first (last year brought Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, for instance). This is one of two White-House-under-siege films you will see (or wait for Netflix to see) this year, the other being June’s White House Down. Will there be a character in that film who will dramatically speak the line “White House down,” prompting Penn Jillette and his cronies to redden their palms? Maybe you can go see it and let me know — I’ll probably opt for the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy comedy that weekend, having essentially seen White House Down already.

Spring Breakers

March 22, 2013

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When Harmony Korine was writing Spring Breakers — this is just a guess — he must have filled the script with cautionary-tale cliches, then gone back and reversed all of them. Nothing in the movie plays out as you’d expect. It isn’t a cautionary tale, but it’s not really an empowerment tale, either; it’s just a tale (though just barely, since Korine still disdains narrative). Korine follows the characters and watches them, occasionally evoking the beauty of the moment, the jags of excitement and fear, the stretches of contented restfulness. This movie that opened at #6 at the box office, becoming the most lucrative amd acclaimed film Korine will likely ever make, is a trancelike tone poem, a fantasia about freedom, or at least what certain debased segments of American culture consider freedom.

Plot-wise, what we have here could fit into a B-movie directed by Andy Sidaris, T.V. Mikels, or Russ Meyer. Four college girls — Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) — try to scrape up enough cash to light out for spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. They come up short, so Brit and Candy rob a diner while Cotty drives the getaway car; Faith, whose struggle with religion is suggested by her name, isn’t involved and only finds out about it later. Once in Florida, the girls lose themselves in partying until they get arrested during a hotel sweep. They’re out of money and can’t post bail, but someone comes to their rescue: Alien (James Franco), a wannabe rapper and self-styled gangsta festooned with crude tattoos and sporting a gold grill.

Alien looks like bad news. But he’s not the kind of bad news that decades of movies have conditioned us to expect. Underneath his Scarface pose and rancid Korine-style dialogue, Alien is surprisingly soulful, almost childlike, and his big “Look at my shit” scene is already a classic and an internet meme. Korine achieves greatness here when Alien discovers, to his delight, that at least two of the girls are as hardcore as he is. They all come from a Gen-Y moral swamp where nothing has consequences because everyone’s a winner if they try. Spring Breakers unexpectedly and movingly develops layers of feeling, and Korine sustains the greatness when Alien picks out Britney Spears’ “Everytime” on the piano and three of the girls, in pink ski masks, dance around with AK-47s. At times like this, Korine’s elliptical and seemingly nonsensical approach coalesces to plug directly and cleanly into thoughts and emotions we never knew were there. He’s been doing that since 1997’s Gummo, by the way; this is just another of Korine’s art projects, only with a deceptive mainstream glaze (and a marketing hook that apparently worked). Spring Breakers has less in common with something like Project X than with Korine’s previous effort, Trash Humpers. (I’d dearly love to see someone program that double feature.)

With the aid of cinematographer Benoît Debie, Korine makes most of the movie (other than some on-the-fly camcorder stuff) look like neon sherbet, lush and candylike, with a menacing undertone from the score by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex. I go on a bit about pure cinema, but this is the clearest American example of it in some time. Korine judges nothing: the crime scenes buzz with outlaw excitement, and the menage a trois between Alien and his two favorite “soulmates” in his pool is undeniably erotic, a contrast to the aggressively sexual but unsexy show-us-your-boobs spring-break footage earlier in the film. I haven’t read any Korine interviews about the movie, so I don’t know if he’s been gassing on about the moral message, if any, but I don’t think he has one, truly, or needs one. It’s a dreamy riff on events we almost certainly, at some points, are not supposed to take seriously.

The actresses, mostly veterans of tween-pop entertainment, communicate a sense of numbness, hungry-ghost appetitiveness that, in at least two cases, will never be sated. The movie belongs to James Franco, an intelligent and experimental actor who sometimes seems to feel superior to his roles (definitely including Oz the Great and Powerful). Here, though, with Korine as his art-installment kindred spirit, Franco comes to play, going far beyond type or stereotype into a poseur’s fantasy of himself. Alien has a rapist’s big-bad-wolf grin upon introduction, and our inner alarms wail sharply, but Franco and Korine know exactly what they’re doing: Alien, who never actually harms a hair on any of the girls’ heads and seems like more of a lover than a fighter — and ultimately less dangerous than his two proteges — is the movie’s romantic center, and Korine eroticizes Alien’s grubby, tat-speckled body more than any of the girls’. Actual spring breakers will probably loathe the movie; it’s really for the pale art majors who never went.

My Amityville Horror

March 17, 2013

amityville8f-1-webAll most of us can know for sure about what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville is that the Lutz family moved there in December 1975 and left 28 days later. Everything else, over the course of 37 years’ worth of books, movies, and TV re-enactments, has been essentially a matter of what you find believable, or what you prefer to believe. Eric Walter’s low-budget documentary My Amityville Horror sits down with a member of the family, Danny Lutz, who was ten when he moved into the house along with his mother, his stepfather, and his two siblings (both of whom declined to participate in the film). Danny, now a 47-year-old UPS driver, looks older than his age, as though his ordeal in the Amityville house stole his youth and continues to steal his life.

Is he telling the truth, though? Danny Lutz seems like a very angry man, and we are left with several explanations for that. He hated his stepfather George Lutz, a former Marine who “had no parent skills whatsoever.” Danny suggests that George’s interest in the occult made the family a target for whatever was haunting the house. He claims that George had telekinetic powers. Is it possible that Danny and the other children were brainwashed by George into believing in paranormal activity? Or intimidated by George into going along with the story? I wouldn’t want to speculate, but in the film, Danny certainly seems to believe what he’s saying. The thought of not being believed triggers his temper worse than anything else — as when Eric Walter asks if he would take a polygraph test.

My Amityville Horror becomes not so much an “untold story” of the Amityville case as a psychological study of a troubled man. Whatever you believe Danny went through, it’s clear he went through something, something that still eats away at him. We see him talking to a therapist, to a reporter who’d covered the original story, to a psychic investigator who had visited the house. They all seem to take him at his word. Danny seems to feel an intense need to tell his story, though he also says he doesn’t want to — doesn’t want to have to. He just wishes he had a normal childhood, a normal life. If that’s so, he hasn’t really helped his blood pressure by appearing here; those, like me, who couldn’t have picked the grown Danny Lutz out of a line-up before will now recognize him as “the Amityville guy.” (I’m also not sure why he didn’t trade his adoptive name Lutz — his loathed stepfather’s name — for his given name Quaratino, though maybe he wanted to maintain a connection to his mother.)

At certain points I stopped thinking about the Danny I was watching and reflected on another spirit-haunted Danny of the 1970s with a bad-tempered father figure — Danny Torrance, the child hero of Stephen King’s The Shining. Over the years I wondered what kind of man Danny Torrance would grow up to be, and later this year King himself will provide an answer with his sequel, Doctor Sleep. But watching My Amityville Horror, I could imagine that Danny Torrance might turn out something like Danny Lutz, carrying around ghastly memories and bottomless anger issues either learned or genetic or both. Life is messier than fiction, though, and I predict King’s Danny will be more tragically heroic than the other Danny we meet here.

The movie occasionally feels dawdling, despite its abbreviated length. Not much time is spent on Danny’s actual recollections of the horror; we more often hear him talk about how it affected him in the years since. He left home as a teenager, lived homeless in the desert for a while; married, had two kids, divorced. He lugs packages for UPS and in his spare time apparently sits in his garage a lot and plays electric guitar. Eric Walter digs where he can, but he, like almost everyone else, seems intimidated by Danny, who is a big guy who always seems a heartbeat away from punching someone. A documentarian like Nick Broomfield, who’s usually fearless about bluntly asking for the truth (he would’ve gotten Danny on a polygraph), might have provided a more in-depth Rashomon-like account — though he probably wouldn’t have gained access to Danny, whereas Walter, who started an Amityville website at age 17, most likely struck Danny as a more sympathetic ear. That’s ultimately what we take from My Amityville Horror — nothing shockingly new about the case, just sympathy for a man who, even if he didn’t literally flee from demons with his family 37 years ago, certainly appears to be living with some now.

See also: The Amityville Horror (2005)

Oz the Great and Powerful

March 10, 2013

OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFULAs the release of Oz the Great and Powerful drew closer, I had the nagging feeling that I should curl up with L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books before catching the film. Instead, it turns out I accidentally re-read another book far more relevant to the movie: Bruce Campbell’s riotous 2002 memoir If Chins Could Kill. Much of Campbell’s book talks about how he, director Sam Raimi, and a few other cash-strapped lunatics moved heaven and earth to make the first Evil Dead — talk about humble beginnings. These days Raimi’s a big shot with three insanely lucrative Spider-Man films under his belt, and Disney has handed him $200 million to make Oz the Great and Powerful, which, as a few commentators have pointed out, has essentially the same structure as Raimi’s third Evil Dead entry Army of Darkness. (Campbell’s in it too, as an arrogant guard at the Emerald City gates.)

The first half hour or so of this new Oz is basically Sam Raimi’s love of movie magic writ large — very large. Like the sainted 1939 Wizard of Oz, it starts out in black and white, in the boxy “Academy ratio” used by most movies until the ’50s. Cheapjack carny magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) rides a hot-air balloon into a tornado, which whisks him away to the land of Oz, and the screen widens and, like Kool-Aid pouring into a clear glass, everything fills up with dazzling color. Most everything we see from then on, too, was concocted in computers, and for a while the obviousness of the green-screen backdrops works for Raimi’s consciously artificial approach. After a while, though, the visuals become irritating white noise; the movie overdoses on relentless prettiness.

The people of Oz receive Oscar as a savior, the “wizard” they’ve been promised. He meets three witches: Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and two sisters, Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Soon enough, Oscar pegs Evanora and her easily manipulated sister — who will become the Wicked Witches of the East and West — as the primary threats to Oz, but he knows he isn’t a real wizard — he’s just a flimflam artist, and Glinda knows it too. Far too much time is devoted to Oscar’s self-doubts, and the script hangs a lot of weight on bromides about believing in oneself, in ideals of goodness, and so on. We seem to pass a lot of time watching James Franco and Michelle Williams, sometimes accompanied by a talking monkey, strolling in front of fake backdrops.

As John Waters knows (and has written), the real meat of The Wizard of Oz is the Wicked Witch, who, it turns out, became the fearsome green-skinned villain because she was jealous of Oscar strolling in front of too many fake backdrops with Glinda. This motive is disappointing to say the least, but any scenes Raimi hands over to Kunis and especially Weisz as they spit venom and scheme are terrific fun. If nothing else, pop culture’s current swing towards fantasy and fairy tales gives actresses a chance to doll up in outlandish drag-queen ornamentation and vamp six ways to Sunday. Franco, grinning and smirking his way through his performance, can’t compete with the witches — including Glinda, whom Williams invests with a steely inner strength.

Eventually we’re treated to the spectacle of an Oscar-winning actress and an Oscar-nominated actress throwing balls of energy at each other, while Oscar and his new posse of tinkers, farmers and Munchkins jerry-rig various illusions to hoodwink the Wicked Witches’ evil flying baboons and restore Oz to its people. Oz the Great and Powerful is supposed to be about how Oscar the hokum artist grew into his role as the Wizard, but he just seems like a bystander a lot of the time. So does Sam Raimi. He sneaks in a few time-honored Raimi shots, like the ram-o-cam, but longtime fans of the director may wish they were re-watching Army of Darkness instead. Raimi said all he could, and brilliantly, with the story of a stranger in a strange fantasyland in that film. Movie buffs sometimes like to wonder what their favorite z-budget cult directors could do with some serious money, but on the evidence here, the answer is, not much that anyone else with $200 million of Disney’s money couldn’t do. When you can afford to do anything, you have no restrictions to push against, no sand to produce the pearl of creativity.

The Last Exorcism Part II

March 3, 2013

The-Last-Exorcism-Part-II-Image-2Not to quote myself, but when I wrote about The Last Exorcism a few years back I led with “Exorcism movies shouldn’t be rated PG-13, because demons shouldn’t be rated PG-13.” That goes double for exorcism movies about a demon that’s in love with its host body. The Last Exorcism made a lot of money, and so we now behold The Last Exorcism Part II, which should by rights be nasty and filthy, since it involves a demon trying to seduce a teenage girl into welcoming it inside her forever. Back in the ’70s, the era of drive-ins and wonderfully loose morals, this sort of thing would’ve barnstormed theaters with a hard R rating and scandalized everyone except the steadfast trash-movie fans who cheerfully chugged it down. Instead we get this pallid, waifish film with a safe PG-13, which allows for no nastiness, no filthiness, and one lonely F-bomb. I remember when demon flicks used to be dangerous and shocking. Get off my lawn.

This sequel is a conscious break from the original — it’s not a found-footage movie, but a “real” movie, in which the first film’s possessed victim, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), has escaped from the demonic cult idiotically revealed in the original’s climax. Nell goes to stay at a New Orleans halfway house with other wayward girls, and her demon, “Abalam,” is still very much with her. She meets a shy boy (Spencer Treat Clark) at her new job cleaning motel rooms — by the way, we see more footage of Nell vacuuming motel rugs than really deserves to be in a horror movie, unless the filmmakers are exclusively playing to the zuigerphobes in the audience.

You see enough horror movies and you’ve seen the four or five basic ways an unimaginative director tries to scare you, or at least startle you. In some respects film language is still in its infancy, but there are nevertheless many effective ways to disturb, disorient or otherwise freak out an audience, and The Last Exorcism Part II doesn’t come within a country mile of any of them. We get the standard jump scares, the standard looming shadow in the background, the standard weird voices. Ashley Bell is a good actress — she was vivid in the first film — but here she mostly shuffles around as Nell tries to be a Good Girl and can never get anyone to believe that Abalam is messing with her again, at least until the time-honored Magical Negro (Tarra Riggs), complete with a voodoo-woman head wrap, says she can help Nell, recruiting two of the most inept exorcists I’ve seen since The Devil Inside. She also briefly calls on Baron Samedi, evoking unhelpful memories of the far more entertaining 1974 flick Sugar Hill — this movie sure could’ve used a spectral dude in a top hat, grinning and chomping a cigar and bellowing “What is in it for me?” — but, no, the Baron presumably finds Nell boring and stays out of it. Pity.

There’s an interesting idea here — Abalam loves Nell and wants to be with her — but soon enough the idea coughs up blood, points its toes skyward, and is forgotten about. For this conceit to work, we would have to see that Nell is actually, y’know, being seduced, but we just see the standard ooga-booga stuff. A demon that presents as an angel, as a being you don’t want to get rid of, is a lot scarier than a demon that rattles windows, says creepy things, and generally comes off like a pervy stalker. For its other trick, Abalam apparently makes Nell have quite the hot dreams, prompting her to moan and stroke her face. Well, what turns Nell on? What could lure this chaste girl over to the dark side? Um, something, I guess — it’s a PG-13 movie, so we never find out. There’s no tension if Nell doesn’t want what the demon is offering. Haven’t these filmmakers ever heard of the first temptation? A demon will come to you as everything you ever wanted; scaring you away from it is just bad business for a demon.

I have to assume the filmmakers are big fans of the climactic scenes in the first two Paranormal Activity movies wherein nice-looking Katie Featherston went on destructive rampages. Here — spoiler alert — nice-looking Ashley Bell goes on such a rampage, and I would advise you, in a few months, to hit up a Redbox, take home this movie for a dollar, and skip forward to the last few minutes, particularly a shot in which Nell drives merrily around town while stuff on the street — including a fire truck — bursts into flames all around her. Good times. If you don’t want to spend the buck, it’ll probably turn up on YouTube titled “The Best Part of The Last Exorcism Part II.” It’s the best part in more ways than one, since the end credits appear within seconds and we get to go the hell home.