The Shining

AMC is currently playing a series of films from the past in showcase times on Sundays and Tuesdays. I did not get to “Bonnie and Clyde” and I will miss “Dirty Harry” next week, but I got a chance this afternoon to revisit Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining”. It is a great film even though it is not as scary as you might have been lead to believe. It is creepy as all get out, and there are some good shocks, but the most disturbing and frightening image is a series of words typed out on a page. The gore level is low, the tension is slow building, and the style is all Kubrick, who has always been a “cool” film maker as opposed to a passionate hot.

This is not a full review but just a few comments about some of the things I noticed in the film that either escaped my attention before or that I’d simple forgotten. For instance, the guy who hires Jack Torrance to be the winter caretaker is Barry Nelson, a well known TV and character actor from the 50s and 60s who had the distinction of being the first actor to portray James Bond on screen. That was something I got a kick out of. The movie that Wendy and Danny are watching when Danny goes up to their apartment and finds his Dad sitting on the edge of the bed was “The Summer of 42”. I don’t know for sure why it struck me as interesting except that I’m a big fan of that movie.

Actor Tony Burton appears briefly in the film as the guy who gets Scatman Crothers a SnowKat to take up to the Overlook Hotel. He was Apollo Creed’s corner man in the first couple of Rocky movies and he was a customer of the insurance agency my wife worked for thirty years ago. She said he was a very nice man, and I think he lives in our area because there is one of those autographed shots of him at the local Phillie’s Best Sandwich shop. I also enjoyed the fact that Dr. Tyrell was serving the bourbon in the bar to Jack Torrance. Apparently Joe Turkel was a favorite of Kubricks.

Jack is at his Jack best in this movie. His performance is all eyebrows and smiles. Up until the end of the picture he manages to be a sympathetic character. You’d have to sympathize with a guy married to Shelly Duvall’s Wendy. She is a nervous breakdown in a dress. I think I heard that Kubrick did not care much for her as an actress and tormented her to get the performance she turns in. It was an odd choice and it works for the movie but she doesn’t get the kind of emotional support from the audience that would make her a more fulfilling heroine.

I have a lot of other things to do so as I said this is not a full review, just a bit of fun to remind people it is Halloween week and they should go out and find a scary movie to enjoy. That’s what I did, even though it is 33 years old.

 

Escape Plan

This will be short and to the point. There is almost no way this whole scenerio could ever come close to happening. It is over the top dramatic and the prisoners in the “Tomb” would not have the same access to each other that they would have in a normal prison. The job that Sly has is one of those movie created specialties that exist in a screenwriters fantasy and that’s about the only place. The speed of events and the brutality of the fights would leave normal human beings dead after a couple of minutes. All of that means nothing because this is an action film starring the two biggest action stars of the last thirty years and it goes down like candy. Sweeet.

As the world’s foremost prison security expert (based on breaking out of high security penitentiary’s). Stallone is his usual tough guy with a brain character. His brain is not big enough to keep him from being betrayed and locked in a prison that was built largely based on weaknesses he himself discovered.So the stakes are pretty high. Guess who he runs into on the inside, the Governator himself. Looking fit and with a stylish moustache and goatee. He is another prisoner who has been deep sixed into this high tech prison. Together they must break out. That’s it. You don’t really need more plot set up than that.

Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes the detailed information he would need to crack a case. Holmes has made a study of tobacco so he knows where in London a certain blend can be bought. It was occasionally a stretch but it was not overused in the Holmes canon. Sly’s character kno2ws the heat rate at which rusted steel bolts will snap, he knows that milk cartons have a cellophane like liner that can hold a mark and he can not only build a sextant, he can use one and teach someone else how to do so also. Yet this is the kind of hokum, fans of action films love. We love it when the hero outsmarts the bad guys and surprises us with a unexpected use for everyday items. MacGyver made a whole TV series out of that audience demand. So shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride.

Schwarzenegger is actually pretty good in his role as a guy who knows secrets that the bad guys want. He gets tortured and locked into isolation and gets to feign a breakdown as part of the plot to escape. His German sound very convincing, I wonder why because his English never was. Both he and Stallone beat up fellow prisoners and each other from time to time. The movie takes a while to get us to the prison but once it does there are plenty of the usual tough guy tropes. The biggest gas comes when, during the actual breakout, Arnold picks up a big ass machine gun off a helicopter. Anyone who has seen a Terminator movie knows what comes next and that’s what we are waiting for.

The movie is efficient at making the characters just interesting enough for us to care, before tossing us into prison mayhem. The bad guy warden played by Jim Caviezel is just a big enough prick that we are anticipating the final outcome. There are plot holes and inconsistencies galore but who cares? Arnold and Sly get together to kick a little ass. I heard on “The Title Pending Movie Podcast” that they did not think it was quite “Cobrawesome”. I guess I agree but I did find it “Terminazing”.
 

Rush

It is hard for me to accept that I went three weeks with this in theaters and I’d not seen it yet. Holy crap, is this a great movie! I know nothing about Formula 1 racing, I knew next to nothing about this story and I’ve been hit ot miss on Ron Howard films for years. So you can take my word to the bank, this is one of the best films of the year. If it gets lost among all the other great films coming out now because Americans are not well versed in Formula 1, it would be a crying shame. The screenplay and performances in this movie are sure contenders for awards consideration and the film is directed with great confidence and patience by Mr. Howard. This is a thinking person’s movie. It asks big questions and it probes deeply into the psyche of competition.

James Hunt and Niki Lauda are legends in their field. While they might be embraced by fans of racing, as portrayed here they would not be embraced by most of humanity. Each one has damning flaws and personalities that would drive the average person to the brink. Hunt is a reckless glory seeking thrill addict, who can’t make an emotional connection and leaves a series of romantic conquests in his wake. Lauda is a brilliant machine, focused on the odds and playing a strictly regulated percentage as a competitor. That he manages to form a fully functioning romantic relationship is miraculous in itself since his arrogant self assurance is so off putting. As each one circles around the other, it is clear that their rivalry is uniquely reponsible for their individual success. Americans know how Larry Bird and Magic Johnson drove each other further along the path of greatness, this relationship works the same way. Each one needs the other as a standard by which to be compared.

Both actors are terrific in the parts they are cast in. Chris Helmsworth  was made to be an object of romantic fantasy. Women will want him and men will want to be him. He has swagger and weakness at the same time. he knows he can count on his good looks and his driving skills, but he can’t always count on his head to tell him the right thing to do. The scene where Hunt antagonizes his wife into the arms of Richard Burton happens quickly and Helmsworth plays it fast and dismissive. Later he is all manufactured confidence when he announces to the world that he and his model wife are calling it quits. His crack to the media sounds light and cynical but we get a peek behind the curtain and see how it really effects him. Daniel Brühl as Lauda has the showier role despite being a character that is more contained. The physical transformation after his accident and the internalized struggle he goes through in trying to find enough reason to marry is played very well on screen.

The car racing sequences are aggressively edited and the sound design was impressive. I felt frequently caught up in the recreation of races from nearly forty years ago. The dramatic crash that briefly sidelines Lauda but changes him almost not at all was frightening and a little stomach churning as well. The harrowing hospital scenes are another place where Brühl gets to be the center of the story and show us what he has got. Hans Zimmer may have some cliches in his bag of tricks, but they work really well in this movie and the musical score keeps us involved and on the edge of the seat during the races. Howard and his team of editors don’t linger over scenes and they don’t cut them so quickly that you can’t tell what is happening. This film was put together by people who know how to tell a story.

We had a conversation last night about how few movies these days feature actors in dramatic roles that are really about grown ups acting out a drama. This movie has come along and shut that conversation down. There are still good stories to tell and good actors who can play the story out for us. in the hands of another director, this could have just been an inspirational sports film. Howard and company have made a movie about courage, rivalry and the sacrifices it takes to be a champion. The fact that the story is true should not detract from their accomplishment. This film is almost out of theaters now, do yourself the favor of finding it in your local cinema and see what a great movie can be in the current film environment.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Blogathon

For the Cinematic Katzenjammer Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Blogathon

Here is my take on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I tried to find a theme that would be a bit different but I know that some of the choices were going to be obvious, at least they were to me. The four films I’ve chosen to represent the four horsemen have a common actor to unite them. His powerful voice and steel jawed expression make him the ideal stand in for God in the end of days. All of the films have their own following so there is not much need to introduce each of them. So I will give my simple justification and provide a few links to make a short visit worth your time.

Pestilence

To represent the ravages of disease that pestilence consists of, I could have chosen the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by God through Moses.  Floods, fire, locusts, frogs and of course the death of the first born that Passover reminds us of would fit perfectly and it would launch my theme with an epic film featuring the actor that I chose to stand in for us. The only problem is that pestilence makes a cameo appearance in “The Ten Commandments” and I want it to be a bigger feature. So instead, Charlton Heston will cope with plague in the much more recent (by several thousand years) “The Omega Man”. This story by the late Richard Matheson has been made into a movie three times. Will Smith is the hero of the most recent version but it was Chuck Heston who had to deal with the biological warfare disaster that turns most of the population into light sensitive zombie types with a grudge. 

Heston spends the first part of the movie hunting down and killing the infected and then the second half trying to find a cure so the resistant colony he comes across can repopulate the planet. His messianic exit shot reminds us all that this was a plague brought down on us by us and that redemption can only come from sacrifice of the pure (His Neville is after all the last real man on Earth). If you click on the picture above or the poster below, you will get my post from the original Movie A Day Project, or my daughter’s post when I was gone for a week and she sat in for me. Enjoy but think on your sins.

War

Heston was featured in too many historical war movies to count.(El Cid, The Buccaneer, and Midway to start and that does not include any westerns). In sticking to the general theme of the Apocalypse however, there is another obvious war based film that stars our man with the iron grin. We are first introduced to war in this film as Heston and his fellow astronauts are attacked by a hunting party of a very surprising nature.

Who would have thought that the mild human pranksters who stole his clothes like monkeys, would turn out to be the monkeys of this planet and be hunted by a species that was on the other end of the gun on Heston’s home world? Mindblowing right? That’s nothing. At the end of the film in what is probably the greatest story twist since “Psycho”, it turns out that “Taylor” was right all along in being skeptical of the human race. They basically annihilated themselves, deeding the planet to the next highest species in the family tree. The legacy we left them however is not just limited to the planet, it carries the same tendency toward hatred, fear and moral superiority that brought us down. The apes themselves have prejudices and myths that bind them to a parallel path of humans.

The castes of intellectuals, separated from scientists and competing for power with the military sound mighty familiar to anyone who has studied human history. War is the way those problems get solved. As Heston’s character confronts the best visual sucker punch of all times, he tells us the results of the greatest of all war.     George Taylor: “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

Famine

Back to Back in my list are the two greatest closing lines that reveal how we are all going to hell in a handbasket. With “Planet of the Apes” we blew it up. With “Soylent Green” we ate it up. The opening of the film provides the road to ruin with what basically amounts to a powerpoint slide show. In all deference to  Al Gore and the hyperbole surrounding Global Warming, this is how you show people the end is coming.

The set up takes two and a half minutes and then we know the future is not a happy place because of want. Charlton Heston investigates a murder and discovers a bigger horror story than anyone could contemplate. If you haven’t seen the movie, this is a must  for the top of your list. Great story telling with minimal effects. I’ve actually written about this twice, once on my Movie a Day Project, which you can read by clicking on the face of our guide thru the Apocalypse here:

I also covered it extensively on another blog site that I am guest writing for and you can find that link by clicking on the poster here:

If you have already seen the film, or know the gut check secret of “Soylent Green”, feel free to indulge a minute or so and catch Chuck telling it like it is below.

Death

This may be a cheat but you don’t really need Mr. Heston on screen to be completely fantastic. The voice he wielded could do serious damage in a fight with the voice of Morgan Freeman.

The end of all life on the planet is pretty much what we are talking about here.

So there you have it, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse all ridden by the the same ghost.
 Charlton Heston

Carrie (2013)

Everyone has an opinion about remakes. Most cinephiles hate them with a passion. “The new version will never live up to the original and Hollywood is creatively bankrupt”. Of course people who have never seen the original don’t care and they may first fall in love with the new work sometimes without even knowing that it was made before, “Oh my god, it’s a remake? The original can’t be as good.” My opinion is that a remake is only likely to succeed if there was something about the original that is evergreen. The subject, the role the concept has to be something that people can relate to. This film is not an English language remake of a foreign film, so stupid Americans can watch without reading. It is a traditional remake, a chance to tell the same story in a different way for a new audience. Having seen the original however, it is impossible to approach the new film with impartial eyes. There will always be comparisons. So this review will focus on the comparisons.

The story is largely unchanged. The plot moves in the same direction with the same basic characters so there are no surprises as far as that goes. If you saw Brian DePalma’s 1976 original, you have seen the story.  There are differences in style though that are interesting and help the movie feel fresh despite the previous version. For instance, the start of this film is very different, it has a flashback story technique that takes a little advantage of our expectations and makes what follows a bit more meaningful. Julianne Moore is playing the Piper Laurie role of Carrie’s mom. She is pathetic and frightening and loving and hateful, and usually all at the same time. The religious fanaticism here is contained to her world and unlike the original, this woman is not surviving on the charity of guilty Christians. She is even more clearly disturbed than Laurie was in the part. That being said, I think she feels less of a presence than in the 1976 version. Carrie’s powers dominate after she gets asked to the prom, and the terror that we felt for Sissy Spacek when she returns from the prom is less ominous as a result.

The DePalma version starts with a lurid trip through the girls locker room and the movie is on the brink of being an exploitation film, but it is held back from that by a sympathetic central character. This version never feels dangerous in the same way. It is going to be a serious film from the time it starts and the directors restraint at the beginning creates a more subdued feeling. The bullying that Carrie endures is exaggerated by the modern technology but the bullies are mostly the same. Chris, the main antagonist, acts out her rage at being called on the carpet for being a bitch. When she can’t get away with it, even with her father confronting the principal she goes off the deep end. Nancy Allen’s version of Chris is mean girl standard, Portia Doubleday is a monster in the making that crawls out of the larvae stage to become a full fledged antagonist. The one flaw from the original film was that Chris’ comeuppance was over so quickly, that is a mistake that is remedied here.  

In the original, it always seemed to me to be very ambiguous as to Sue and Tommy’s motivation for getting Carrie to the prom. William Katt came off as a good natured doofus, and Amy Irving did not quite break with the Chris character. Their involvement in the end becomes a bit of a puzzle. In this version, Sue is clearly conflicted about being one of Chris’s drone bees. She is motivated by guilt and a desire to reach out to Carrie. Tommy in this version is also very sweet and he seems to understand his role much more clearly. His exclamation of “What the F@#*” as the crimson shower comes down on them signals to the audience and to Carrie that he was a victim of Chris as well. This is another point that makes the emotions work better although the mind is not taxed as much. I’m not sure which version I prefer but I do know that Tommy is sympathetic in both and Sue is a lot more sympathetic in the new version. The mean girls that follow Chris are not as distinct in the new version so although there is some furious vengence rained down on them, it does not feel as significant.
 
Carrie is played by one of my favorite young actresses,  Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit Girl) for the uninitiated. She is very good in the part. Whereas Sissy Spacek was all big eyes and small voice, Chloë grows more confidence with her power and the decimation of the prom feels like a more deliberate act as a result. The harshness of the original is tempered here in that not everyone dies at the end. That may feel like a sell out but it will make a more sympathetic Carrie at the end of the movie. The remorse and compassion that Carrie feels at the end makes us more likely to resent the “Burns in Hell” graffiti that is the exit of the film. There was no way that the stinger from the original would be matched or that it would work, so they don’t try for that. Instead they try for a more supportive outcome that makes us more likely to feel for our protagonist. 

The one thing that did clearly fail in the film was the CGI effects. They take us out of the movie and were overdone. If you have seen the viral video of the coffee shop, you will see a more convincing and frightening version of the power that Carrie wields. I don’t know that we can but the genii back in the bottle but the old school effects are more effective at creating real shock than the modern computer. I was very satisfied with the film. The story still gives us a slow burn and the actors do a good job making their characters feel fresh even though this is a remake. Since I’m not a hater I am willing to give this movie my approval. It was not necessary but it was not a waste of time either.

Machette Kills

I’m afraid this sequel should have been called “Machete Sucks”.

If you have read this site in the past, you know that I am a as big a fan of trash cinema as the next person. I enjoy those terrible SyFy Channel shark movies, I like to wallow in bad taste humor and violent action films are my Big Mac. So this series of movies, based on a trailer invented for the “Grindhouse” feature a few years ago should be right up my alley. I will admit that there were some great bits in “Machete” when it came out three years ago. My favorite part being Machete’s use of a guys intestines to swing down a couple of floors and escape. The problem I had with that film was that it started moralizing about political subjects it had not earned the right to be serious about.

Rumor had it that this new version steered clear on the Illegal Alien subtext and stuck strictly to an action formula. That had my hopes up but they were quickly dashed. “Machete Kills” is supposed to be fun trash cinema and it is dumb trash cinema. Writer Director Richard Rodriguez has taken a great idea, and a great character and turned it into a meaningless cartoon with less personality than Scooby Doo. Somewhere he got the idea that all he had to do was show cool images and that would be enough. There are a lot of neat looking things in the movie, but they are pasted together in such a slapdash fashion that they mean nothing and don’t hold your attention or build suspense. It feels like a TV movie made by someone who has seen enough action films to know what to include but has no idea what an action film is really all about.

The bad guys are all built up to be horrible but they are dispatched without any fun or glee. People are shooting all the time but no one seems to feel any anxiety about being shot at. They die too quickly or escape without consequence. Much of the film reminds me of “Sin City” which was all about the look and did not have a single moment of real emotion in it. Pacing feels wrong, everything happens quickly and without purpose. Characters change allegiance, personality and their faces for no reason whatsoever. There are jokes that just lay there and do nothing and random people are killed without any explanation. The CGI bloodshed may have something to do with this. So much of it seems designed for a visual gag, but the gags only work if we are caught up in what is going on.

Danny Trejo is a national treasure that is wasted here. Action stops repeatedly when he is threatened and he is not escaping by using his wits. When there is a funny bit it is thrown away so quickly that there is not much chance to enjoy it. Mostly he is asked to walk around mayhem that goes on around him. Slow motion walking does not build a good character. It’s as if he was directed to express no emotion at all, but he needs to be angry and determined. He looks lost in a PG sex scene and bored in every other scene. No one gets to spend much screen time with him and that also undermines our ability to care.

This is kitchen sink film making. Throw in everything we can and everyone we can get. Jessica Alba is gone in the blink of an eye, Michelle Rodriguez can’t blink her eyes and Amber Heard, who I liked in “Drive Angy” walks through this with an irritated scowl as her main facial expression. Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins and Lady GaGa all play the same character. It is a joke that gets repeated four times and was not funny the first time. The film wants to be a cheap parody of James Bond and Mission Impossible, it’s not even a good parody of “Spy Hard “.  The grindhouse fare of the 70s had grit under its fingernails and simple stories that played out in obvious ways but at least you could tell what was happening. This movie feels as if it was assembled in a computer from a writing program that did not care about motivation, continuity or entertainment. We saw it today using an on-line two for one coupon from AMC. I now understand why they have to bribe people to come see it after only eight days in the theaters. If I had payed full price for two tickets instead of half price for matinee tickets, I would be the one who wanted to kill.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

I am so overwhelmed when I encounter talent far beyond my ability to comprehend. I know authors and directors and actors are special people who bring their talent to the audience in a way that is amazing, but more than any other skill or ability in the world of the arts, the talent to draw or paint stuns me. There are very talented computer animators and musicians, but I guess their tools feel so much more significant to their work in comparison to a man with a canvas, some pencils and paint.  To watch someone manipulate an air brush or colored pencil and turn a blank canvas into something spectacular is a gift from the gods. Tonight I had the pleasure of watching a film about one of those artists with a talent far beyond my understanding. Drew Struzan has been making commercial art for forty years and all of it is in my head because the art he is best known for is hanging on my walls right now. Drew Struzan does movie poster art. He paints the images and draws the figures and integrates the imagination with the eye. Everyone who reads this will know his work although many of you will not know his name.

If you were to name a movie series from the last forty years of film, except for James Bond, Drew appears to have painted something for those projects. Even when his artwork is not used for the main poster, there are special edition posters and art books and box art for home video that he created. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future all use his iconic work. He does not produce those images from a computer but rather with his own two hands using an eye for detail that most of us cannot comprehend. This film gives us some brief glimpses of him at work and the small details that he adds to all of his work make the images come to life. Some might dismiss this work as mere illustration but when you see the creativity and magic that the images provoke, you will know that this is fine art.

The film is a love letter to poster art and a warm tribute to the man himself. The director Eric Sharkey managed to make a human story as well as a thank you note from all of us. I was surprised at some of the dark issues that got mentioned, because this type of biographical film might be seen as a mere puff piece. Drew’s start in life was not easy and breaking into the art world was a passion that most of us cannot imagine. The term “starving artist” has been around forever, but it certainly seemed to apply here. Even though it was more than forty years ago, I found myself heaving a sigh of relief when Drew got his first steady job working as an illustrator for album covers.Since I am a huge Bee Gees fan, the work that I most admired was the cover art for the “Main Course” album.
It was however the amazing cover for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare, that got him noticed by the more lucrative world of movie advertising and it wasn’t long before he was knee deep in the film business with a lot of big names knocking at his door. A collaboration with another illustrator on the poster for Star Wars, lead to a long time association with George Lucas.Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and many others all line up to sing the praises of this talented artist. Each is able to express a sense of wonder at how his style and technique bring a living quality to his paintings. Spielberg has even gone so far to say that he needs to make the movie live up to the illustrations that Drew provided for the film.

There are highs and lows in the stories and some truly amazing pieces of information. The poster for “John Carpenter’s The Thing” was done without any visual reference to the story, no photos from the set, a complete absence of guidelines for what the “Thing” looked like and it was done in a day. Many would consider the concept to be among the most clever of his career. I can’t think of how someone could accomplish this in months, much less in the space of just over a day. As you listen to Drew Struzan describe these events, it is clear he is not bragging or exaggerating. He is a quiet, unassuming man with confidence in his ability and a sense of guilelessness that is disarming. He tells the stories proudly but without glory. He is a man simply describing his work, not aggrandizing it. That is for everyone else to do and they all do it very well.

I almost went full fanboy at the screening tonight. It took place at the Archlight theater in Hollywood, and I just happened on an announcement on Facebook. Mr. Struzan himself was going to attend and there would be some Q and A. I brought my copy of his book of poster art, thinking I might ask him to sign it. However after seeing how retiring he is in person, and noting that the occasion was a screening not an autograph queue, I held myself back. After the Q and A, I got a chance to speak to the director and shared my appreciation for his work in making the movie happen. The producer, editor and cinematographer were also in attendance and I wish I could have made it over to speak to them as well. I also got to shake the hand of the man himself. Because there was another film screening at the Festival in the same theater, we could not linger in the aisles. I did however force myself on him as he exited the theater and had a chance to speak to him for a few brief moments. As I’m sure he heard from a thousand other lovers of his work, I told him of my admiration for all he had accomplished. He was extremely gracious and shared with me that although he is retired from the movie painting business he still needs to work to take care of his home and family. An artist must work, their art demands it. I know that Drew Struzan does not continue to paint because he needs the money, he does it because he needs the outlet for his talent. I am just thrilled to have seen the film in a theater and even more so to have shaken the hand that produced so much of what I love about the movie poster business.