The Shining

the_shining_2If you ever find yourself stuck at home after a snowstorm, browsing through your streaming movie device, wondering what is exactly the right movie to watch, this is it.

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is about a man (Jack Nicholson) who’s hired to be the winter caretaker for an old hotel. He moves in with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his son just as all the other hotel employees are leaving for the winter. The three settle into their routines; the mom doing chores, the kid riding his Big Wheel around the empty hallways, and the dad trying to write a book. Then a snowstorm cuts off the hotel from the rest of the world, and things get weird.

Well, actually things had been getting weird from the first scene. It seems the previous winter caretaker went crazy and murdered his family. This was blamed on the effects of isolation. When the mom tells the kid they’re going to move into a hotel, the kid has bloody visions of the future. He says that an invisible little boy talks to him and shows him these images. Is that just his way of processing his precognitive powers? Or is he actually communicating with some other person who has future knowledge? Perhaps a future version of himself?

Also, was Jack crazy from the start or did he get possessed by the evil hotel ghosts? Stephen King (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) famously hated Kubrick’s version because it implied that Jack was on the cusp of a psychotic break before they ever got to the hotel. Apparently in the book, Jack is a decidedly good man who saves the day in the end by committing suicide.

But in the film, none of these questions are completely answered. The fact that many details are left unexplained gives the movie a greater sense of mystery. You watch it and you find yourself wondering, unsure. That’s how you should feel when you watch a horror movie. We know just enough to follow the story, i.e. over the course of their stay in the hotel, Jack becomes more and more unhinged and then tries to kill his family. That’s all we need.

In the place of clearly defined story details, we have a beautiful and eerie location, some truly haunting images, and three great performances from the lead actors. Nicholson is perfect in one of his most Jack-Nicholsony roles. (I especially like the scene where Shelley Duvall interrupts him while he’s “working.”) The son (Danny Lloyd) is creepily authentic as the Weird Kid who talks to himself and scares his therapist. I’ve heard criticisms of Shelley Duvall in this movie, but I think she is perfect too. The stilted, awkward way she delivers her lines make sense for her character; she’s playing the role of the devoted wife and mother but she’s actually barely repressing her fear of both her abusive husband and her seemingly deranged son. When Jack finally snaps, she does too, and all the terror she’s been holding back comes flooding out.

Let’s talk about the ending. Jack chases his son into a hedge maze where the boy outsmarts him and escapes, leaving his father trapped, where he freezes to death. This is a clear resolution to the overall story. There is a stinger at the end though. The final shot is a closeup of a photograph that shows Jack at a party at the hotel in 1921. Wtf is that supposed to mean? In his 2006 essay on “The Shining” Roger Ebert speculated that Jack may have been “absorbed into the past.” Sure? That’s as good a theory as any. But the meaning of that photo, like the other unexplained details, isn’t critical to understanding the plot. This is in contrast to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in which the whole ending is so vague that it doesn’t provide a resolution to the story. Don’t get me wrong, I love “2001” but it’s more of a work of art than a story.

With “The Shining” Kubrick gives you just enough details to craft a coherent plot, but leaves as many mysteries as possible, allowing that feeling of uncertainty and dread to build up inside you as  you watch it. A real snowstorm doesn’t hurt either.*


*A movie theater is also a nice place to see this film. “The Shining” is playing at IFC Center Jan. 22-23 and at Nitehawk Cinema Feb. 26-27. All screenings are at midnight (my favorite).

 

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The Empire Strikes Back

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It’s December 31st, 2015, and by now everyone in the galaxy has seen “The Force Awakens.” I thought this would be a good time to revisit “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), aka the first sequel to “Star Wars” (1977). “Empire” is most notable for its originality – a rare quality in a sequel – and for taking some major risks.

Here’s where Lucas’s independence worked in his favor. If Disney had owned Lucasfilm back then, “Empire” might have mirrored “Star Wars” more closely. It might have been about the Rebels discovering a second Death Star under construction and Yoda would have been played by an elderly human who, like Obi-Wan, would have accompanied the heroes on their mission and dispensed occasional wisdom/Force training. (And incidentally, it probably would have been called “Star Wars 2.”)

Instead, the heroes were split up; Han and Leia were pursued by an obsessed Darth Vader and Luke traveled to a swamp for long, slow scenes in which a puppet taught him about the mystical workings of the universe. And the movie ends with one hero captured and another dismembered. This was the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time.

But it worked beautifully. It gave fans what they wanted, i.e. the characters they loved, but it scattered them throughout these worlds and situations we never would have imagined.

If you’re sensing a veiled criticism of “The Force Awakens,” you’re not far off. I loved a lot of choices that J.J. Abrams made, especially the return to practical effects and real sets. Story-wise they played it safe and basically mirrored the plot of “Star Wars” but, to be fair, the film had the weighty task of establishing a lot of new characters and conflicts. Its main objective was to make us care about the new cast of characters, and in this “The Force Awakens” succeeded where “The Phantom Menace” (1999) failed miserably. Rey, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all have their admirers now. I don’t recall legions of fans being won over by Qui-Gon, Amidala, and that CGI rabbit who shall not be named. So, much like “Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens” provided some fun visuals and introduced a host of heroes and villains that fans loved; mission accomplished. Some laziness in the plot can be forgiven. (This time.)

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Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”

And while we’re on the subject of risk taking, I want to point out again that Yoda was played by a puppet. This was unprecedented. While the Muppets were hugely popular by 1980, and performed alongside humans regularly, there was never any attempt to make them lifelike. The conceit in the Muppet universe is that these characters are just accepted as normal people even though they look like crazy puppets. Yoda, on the other hand (*wink*), was meant to be taken seriously as a living, breathing creature. The fact that they even tried this is commendable, but his enormous success as a character is astonishing.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is well regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. It reunited the characters from the first movie and tossed them into new territory. It introduced new characters that would come to be beloved. Most importantly, it took some major risks. Let’s just say, Episode VIII has a lot to live up to.

 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Special Edition)

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Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) is possibly the “Spielbergiest” of all the titles in the exalted director’s filmography. It tells the story of several people who experience strange encounters and then set out on a quest to discover the truth about them. But what is it exactly that makes one film Spielbergier than another? Let’s consider this…

1. Fantasy/Sci-Fi Element
While Spielberg has always had a love for historical dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln”), the name Spielberg still conjures images of giant sharks, alien visitors, dinosaurs, and mystical artifacts. I submit that a film with a fantasy or science fiction story is Spielbergier than one without, and “Close Encounters,” with its alien spaceship mystery, clearly qualifies.

2. Strong, Believable Characters
A Spielbergy story is propelled by, and elevated by, the characters. They feel real and relatable, and we don’t find ourselves waiting around for the next special effects sequence. The performances in “Close Encounters,” particularly by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, feel believable and naturalistic, and their characters are every bit as compelling as the effects.

3. Children in Danger
Spielberg regularly puts children directly in the path of whatever malevolent force is at work in his movies, be it the shark in “Jaws,” the creepy government agents in “E.T.,” or the dinosaurs of the “Jurassic Park” films. “Close Encounters” is no exception, featuring a toddler who is ripped from his mother’s desperate grasp and whisked away in a UFO.

4. Oohs and Ahhs
The quintessential Spielberg shot is “People Looking.” You know the one. The characters are frozen in awe. They stare at something amazing. The camera is low and either pulls in closer or pans from one person to the next. And there’s always an underlying tension; Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) summed this up perfectly in Spielberg’s “The Lost World” (1997): “Yeah, ‘Ooh, ahh!’ That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”

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People Looking

By the end of “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ motivations are still unclear. The Encounter is filled with both awe and tension. Would the aliens extend a hand in friendship or the business end of a death ray?

5. A Personal Connection
Perhaps the main reason “Close Encounters” feels so Spielbergy is the director’s long personal connection to the subject matter. Spielberg traces the origins of the story to his childhood when he viewed a meteor shower with his dad. Later, at age 17, he made a full length film about alien encounters, from which he recreated several sequences, and even specific shots, for “Close Encounters.”

The result is an incredibly rich film that connected with audiences despite being released in the wake of the first “Star Wars” craze. It is essential viewing for fans of science fiction, Spielberg, or generally any human who enjoys motion pictures.

Surprisingly, Spielberg was never quite satisfied with “Close Encounters.” His editing process had been cut short by Columbia Pictures when, on the brink of financial ruin and in desperate need of a hit, the studio insisted on rushing his alien movie to theaters in time for Christmas ’77. The move saved the studio, but Spielberg was left unhappy.

Enter the 1980 Special Edition. This redo was the result of a compromise between the studio and the director. Spielberg would get to tinker with the edit, adding a scene here and trimming a scene there, producing a cut that he was satisfied with. In return, he would create an all-new sequence for the ending, depicting the inside of the alien mothership, which the studio could tease in the marketing campaign for the film’s reissue (see the Special Edition trailer below). Spielberg later admitted this was a mistake, that it ruined some of the mystique of the aliens, and he removed the offending sequence from the third and final official version in 1998.

Thus, the 1980 Special Edition is widely regarded as the lousiest of the three extant versions, but aside from the superfluous ending, the other changes actually improved the pacing and character development, and in a film packed with memorable images, the Special Edition included a new one: the discovery of the cargo vessel in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Whether you prefer the Theatrical Version, the Special Edition, or the Collector’s Edition is a matter of taste, but they are really only minor variations. The core of the “Close Encounters” story remains the same in all of them. You identify with the characters, you marvel at the aliens. As you watch, you become frozen. Your eyes are wide and your mouth is slightly agape. Perhaps more than with any of his other films, you feel the full impact of the Spielberg touch, which transforms his audience into his favorite shot.

The Fog

fog01I grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where fog is a big deal. It would often be so thick that my elementary school would delay the start of the school day until it lifted. Walking to school in the fog would have meant certain death.

I remember the fog from the back of my mom’s station wagon, driving home from Grandma’s house after dark, the headlights illuminating nothing but a wall of mist. At any moment, a figure might materialize from the fog in the middle of the road. There would be no time to swerve. Or a truck traveling the opposite direction might appear, drifting into your lane, its driver fast asleep. The fog creates tension. You hold your breath until you reach home safely.

Not a bad atmosphere for a horror movie. Sadly, “The Fog” (1980) is one of John Carpenter’s lesser works (to be polite). It gets bogged down by a complex plot involving a curse, a hundred year anniversary, and a magic gold cross. It features a pack of ghosts who appear from thick air (See what I did there?) but always on the outside of a locked door, obliging them to break down the door like a bunch of dumb zombies. Why not wait for the fog to seep under the door and then appear inside the house? I guess they’re not that smart.

The opening scene is wonderful though. It shows a crusty old salt whispering a ghost story to a bunch of kids gathered around a campfire. Their mouths agape, they lean forward in anticipation. I wish the whole movie had that feeling, but it’s neither scary enough nor campy enough.

My mom and her best friend would disagree with me, though. They saw this movie in its original release when they would have been in their mid- late-20s. It clearly struck a nerve somewhere. They still bring it up in conversation, and I went to see it based on their well-known enthusiasm for it.

But for me, “The Fog” doesn’t capture that feeling of creeping terror that you get when you’re surrounded by real fog, when dangers of all kinds could be just a few feet away… if you could only see that far.


I saw “The Fog” at BAM on a wonderfully scratched up 35mm print as part of their John Carpenter retrospective, which continues through February 22nd.

Friday the 13th

Friday_the_thirteenth_movie_poster“Friday the 13th” (1980) may be the unlikeliest kickoff to a major franchise in film history. Prior to this viewing, the only Jason movie I’d seen was “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003), and I’m not even sure if that counts. My expectations were thus: a bunch of horny teenagers at a remote lake camp would get killed one by one by someone wearing a hockey mask.

Already a thin premise, but imagine my surprise when the hockey mask didn’t even appear.

I was left wondering why this film resonated with audiences so strongly. The premise wasn’t new. The slasher had been seen before in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), and much more effectively too, since its killer was creepier and its main character more endearing.

“Friday the 13th” was just one of a number of “Halloween” rip-offs. Its characters are underdeveloped and the time between kills feels like filler. But it stuck with audiences, mainly I think, based on the strength its final moments.

The Reveal of the Killer. 

“Friday the 13th” depicts its killer with point-of-view shots. This type of shot was also used in “Halloween,” but there it was just a hook for the opening scene. Here, it’s used for almost the entire movie to hide the identity of the killer.

Throughout the film, we see other characters interacting with the killer. They smile. They’re warm and friendly. This is a clue. The killer doesn’t look threatening on the surface. And yet, after seeing so many teens stabbed and axed, we still expect some sort of menace. When she’s revealed, the killer is wearing a sensible cable-knit sweater and looks like the picture of an aged public school secretary. One gets the feeling that even if she did have a mind for murder, it would be a simple thing to escape from her by jogging lightly away.

She is, of course, Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s mother. We learn that Jason drown in the lake years ago due to the negligence of his camp counselors who were busy humping and getting high. The camp had been closed since then, but is about to reopen, and Mrs. Voorhees, determined to cancel those plans, sets about murdering all the camp employees. And this all occurs on Jason’s birthday, Friday the 13th.

I think all of this works. Her non-threatening appearance plays as comedic, but unintentional comedy is always welcome in a B horror movie. Mrs. Voorhees may make you smile more than cringe, but she’s a memorable villain with a compelling motivation.

The Surprise Ending.

The way this film ends is ridiculous. It makes no sense, even within its own world. But it still gets you.

Inspired by the ending of “Carrie” (1976), the filmmakers tacked on this goofy epilogue hoping to leave the audience with one last fright. They succeeded, and as a bonus, a major film franchise was born.

Cruising

cruising
The first time I heard of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (1980) was fifteen years after its release, in “The Celluloid Closet,” an indispensable documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians throughout the history of films. In it, “Cruising” is indicted as a film that encouraged hate crimes and exploited homophobia. It depicts protesters demanding that the filmmakers halt production altogether. Watching this, one feels that it was a seminal moment, when gays and lesbians spoke up and tried to take control of their own image in the media.

Certainly there’s merit to that. However, after finally watching the film, now thirty-five years after its release, I struggled to identify the reason for all the fuss.

“Cruising” tells the story of a cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to find a serial killer who’s been targeting gay men in the underground leather scene of New York City. The nature of his mission requires a certain open-mindedness, but the job also provides a cover that allows him to indulge his curiosities and explore facets of his sexuality that he might have otherwise ignored. This is a fascinating setup, and the complexity of Pacino’s character is remarkable considering that he evolves without the benefit of expository dialogue. His motivations are known only to himself. He has no confidant, so there is never a scene in which he shares his feelings aloud. Nor is there a voiceover to let us know what he’s thinking. Some have complained that this makes his character frustrating and unnecessarily obscure. I disagree. Pacino’s performance communicates everything we need to know about his secret attraction to the leather scene, and his isolation from the audience makes thematic sense. (This works only up to a point. More on that later.)

Watching the film, I noticed a curious amount of ADR and later learned that protesters followed the production and deliberately ruined the audio recordings by making noise on set. But why? What made this film so controversial that activists actually wanted to shut down production? The film is strikingly sympathetic to the gay community. The first scene involves a pair of homophobic cops, but its purpose is not to make us laugh at or be grossed out by gay people, but to feel sympathy for these characters who face constant harassment. (The scene also introduces the theme of repressed sexuality by showing a cop who antagonizes a drag queen but ultimately forces her to go down on him.)

In a way, the real villains in the story are the intolerance toward gay people and the shame that’s imposed on them. That’s what motivates the murders. I suppose that idea is problematic in itself, that an intolerant society can twist gay people into crazed killers, but the film isn’t that simplistic. Yes, the scene that attempts to humanize the killer and assign his motivation feels clunky, but it’s no reason to protest.

cruising 3I think the real objection was that the film shined a light on the dark corners of the community. The Gay Liberation Movement, as it was called at the time, was grasping for mainstream acceptance, and here was a mainstream film that depicted a subset of the community, one that is particularly sexual, fueled with drugs and violence, and altogether unpalatable to grandmothers the world over. But the film goes out of its way to distinguish the leather subculture from the gay community at large, both by having a character say that outright and by introducing a gay character who is not at all involved in the S&M culture.

One can understand why the Gay Liberation Movement of 1980 would have been apprehensive about a film that invited the whole world into the leather bars of the Meatpacking District, but to go so far as to disrupt the production seems to betray an intolerance toward members of their own community. Perhaps these protesters were themselves a fringe group; conservative and hungry for acceptance, terrified of being viewed as perverted sex freaks and willing to go to any lengths to prove how “normal” they were. Of course I’m extrapolating now, but the struggle between the freaks and the assimilationists was real in the early post-Stonewall era.

cruising 2Regardless of the reason, this film was under tremendous scrutiny before it had even been made, and all the controversy succeeded in diluting the story. The scenes between Pacino and his wife could have provided more insight into his character while maintaining his strict secrecy, as in “Brokeback Mountain” when Heath Ledger insists on certain sex positions with his wife and we understand the meaning. Here, we do see that Pacino can’t get it up for his wife, but that fact alone doesn’t have as strong an impact without accompanying scenes showing him fully capable of performing with men. Also, the relationship between the Pacino character and his neighbor is vital to the film’s conclusion, yet senselessly underdeveloped. As a result, the ending falls flat for lack of a convincing setup. By the time it’s over, one gets the feeling that Friedkin was forced to cut several key scenes and then tried to pass off the resulting obscurity as artistic.

“Cruising” was far ahead of its time and suffered, technically and dramatically, as a result. Here is a film that begs for a remake. Surely now, when the media represents the wide spectrum of the gay community, no one would protest a murder mystery set in the milieu of the leather bars.

And yet, this film, despite its flaws, deserves recognition at least for Pacino’s performance as the conflicted undercover cop, for creating sympathetic gay characters long before that was common, and for going where no mainstream film had gone before. Maybe not boldly, but it did go there.

Raging Bull

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Midnight shows are my favorite. For one thing, the films selected for this coveted time slot often cater to us film geeks. For another, the people who show up to watch movies in the middle of the night always make for an entertaining crowd.

I recently attended a midnight screening of “Raging Bull” (1980) at the magnificent Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was the first to arrive and waited patiently for the parade of those awkward, lumpy film snobs I love so much. I assumed it would be them coming, because who else would go see Scorsese at midnight.

I think all “serious” lovers of cinema have a special place in their hearts for Martin Scorsese. For me, it’s because his films pulse with intensity and energy. In “Raging Bull” in particular, his actors explode and flip tables, and his screen is spattered with blood and sweat. I’ll take that over Antonioni’s ruminations on nothingness or Bergman’s quiet, brooding empty rooms. I understand that this is heresy, but here I must break from my film school brethren. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the auteurs who shaped modern cinema — I do! — it’s just that I can’t honestly say I enjoy sitting through many of their films. I dunno. I like when things happen in a movie. That’s just my preference.

raging bullI’m sure a lively debate could have been held on the subject that night at the Nitehawk. The auditorium was filled with the collective knowledge of countless hours of moviegoing experience, and some debates had already begun in the lobby queue.

Most of the nerds in attendance were in excited, chatty packs, but in the back row I was flanked by a few stragglers. To my left was the only other person, aside from myself, who had come alone. He was the tallest and fairest of all the attendees. I fell in love with him immediately. To my right was a poor dope who’d come with his decidedly un-geeky girlfriend. Clearly a Nitehawk novice, she placed her bag on the floor, nearly killing our waiter when he twice tripped over it. As the lights when down, I sank into my seat, sipping my whiskey, already full of feelings.

We hadn’t reached the midpoint of the first act before it became apparent that the girlfriend on the right had grown bored. She kept trying to chat with her date, but he would only shush her savagely. His rebukes didn’t stop her though. She had a lot to say. After the movie, he hustled her away, probably hoping to avoid any more peevish glares. I wondered if he was reevaluating his relationship, and whether they would have an awkward brunch the next morning. Can a lover of cinema ever get serious with a person who can’t sit through “Raging Bull”?

I pondered this question while the credits rolled, and stole some glances at the elven boy on my left. He did two things after the movie that sealed his place in my heart. First, he stayed seated through the credits. Second, he produced a flip phone from his pocket. A flip phone! My spirited brain extrapolated his whole persona. An entrenched Luddite. Not on Facebook. Writes letters on paper. (Swoon.)

Then my spine stiffened. Suppose he adores Ingmar Bergman? He’s just the type who would. What if “L’Avventura” is his favorite film? I sat through that “movie” (using the term is a stretch) once, last summer, and I wouldn’t endure the experience again. He’d think I’m a complete dunce, of course, and I’d have to allow him that, or I couldn’t say the same thing about that girl who was bored by Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta. (And I don’t want to not say that.)

The last credit rolled. The boy stood up, stretched, and ambled out of the auditorium. Just as well. It’d never have worked between us. I sighed and searched my glass for a last drop of whiskey.

Next midnight I’ll have to see something more lowbrow. But not too low…