Saturday, March 30, 2013

ROOM 237 IS A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE SHINING THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO OVERLOOK


There’s getting deeper into movies and then there’s ROOM 237. It’s a new documentary opening April 5, available on cable VOD right now, about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film THE SHINING. The doc is both fascinating and frightening. It’s fascinating as it indulges these fans who find all sorts of layered symbolism in the movie, and it’s frightening as the more you here these fans go on and on, you realize they may be more than just a little off their rockers. In some cases, these movie buffs are scarier than anything Kubrick conjured up in his film about the haunted Overlook Hotel. 

I'm all for a good conspiracy theory and finding hidden meaning in art, but with these fans, I kind of wanted to yell, “Get a life!” (Like William Shatner had to in that famous SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit: http://dai.ly/114uCBk). Still, at the same time, I can appreciate how devoted movie fans can dig deep into a movie and find meaning reading between the lines of the screenplay. Thus, this documentary is heady and silly at the same time. Yes, there is all kinds of symbolism in Kubrick’s classic film, but is it there in practically every frame? And is he simultaneously commentating upon the Holocaust, faked moon landings, alien invasions and Indian retribution? The super fans in ROOM 237 absolutely believe so. 


Interestingly, we never get to see any of these over-the-top fans in ROOM 237. They're kept off screen, as we only hear their narrative accompanying the scenes played out from the movie that they insist are laden with hidden meaning. By doing so, filmmaker Rodney Ascher (THE S FROM HELL) might be saving them from ridicule. Or is he letting you watch his doc with the feeling that you're being joined on the couch by a fanatical friend? Maybe he wants us to feel like we're listening to some overly pretentious DVD commentary. No matter, it allows us to view and judge the scenes from THE SHINING for ourselves, at face value.


If any filmmaker knew how to toy with an audience, and was himself obsessive about every detail he put on the screen, it was Kubrick. But did he layer in such messaging?  Did he have it out for the US government for its mistreatment of the American Indian? Was he confessing to being part of a NASA cover-up and faking moon landings? Is the story of disturbed innkeeper Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his beleaguered family (Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd) really all about the Holocaust? I doubt that Stephen King meant any of those things in his bestselling source material, and I doubt that Kubrick intended it in his film either. (If you really want a conspiracy movie about the space program, check out Peter Hyams’ 1977 potboiler CAPRICORN ONE. You can read about that at imdb.com - http://imdb.to/XjanRd)

Still, there are certain details in THE SHINING that do beg questions. Why did Kubrick dress youngster Danny in that ‘Apollo 11’ knit sweater?  Why is there Indian symbolism everywhere in the movie, from the art on the walls to the eagle T-shirt Nicholson wears to the cans of Calumet baking powder seen in the pantry? And what is it with all the sexual imagery and the blood red rooms everywhere? Is Kubrick trying to equate ‘red rum’ (the word murder backwards in the movie, if you recall) with the blood of birth? Or the sins of extramarital sex? I’m not sure, but there is definitely phallic imagery in that carpet in room 237 when Torrance encounters the nude bather. That one's pretty obvious.
The intellectual maze that these fans create in regards to THE SHINING is as intricate and head spinningly complex as the garden maze that Torrance gets lost in at the end. And by the end of ROOM 237, you may not be certain of anything that Kubrick is showing you. Are even the titles symbolic? Are the dissolves trying to tell us something with their strange layering of one scene onto the next? Are those twins an extension of Shelly Duvall's motherly instincts? Egads, don't pass the popcorn! Pass the Advil! 


I’ll tell you one thing that I do believe ol’ Stanley intended. He and King had a great falling out during production as Kubrick threw out much of King's story and source material. It was so insulting to King that years later, in 1997, he produced his own version for TV. So when Kubrick shows an automobile accident in his film with red Volkswagen Beetle annihilated by a semi-truck, you better believe it has some significance. See, in King’s original story, the Torrance’s drove a red Beetle, but Stanley changed the color of the car to yellow for his film. Is it a coincidence that the red car is crushed? I think not.


No matter whether any of the theories are true or not, and many close to Kubrick say they are not, ROOM 237 makes for fascinating viewing. The ideal way to watch it is to make a double feature out of it. Start with THE SHINING and then watch it dissected to death in ROOM 237. You may not believe all that folks like conspiracy theorist Bill Blakemore believe are evident in the movie. (He’s even got his own entire website on the matter: http://bit.ly/49Xucz). But I’ll bet you’ll never quite look at “The Shining” the same afterwards. So proceed into that dangerous head trip of room...at your own caution!


(NOTE: The documentary ROOM 237 is currently playing in New York and will be released nationally on April 5. However, you can catch it now on cable VOD throughout the nation.)


Saturday, March 23, 2013

WHEN GOOD GIRLS GO 'GANGSTA'


There’s a terrifying moment in the new movie SPRING BREAKERS, where two of the girls who’ve already shown a predilection for bad judgment go further in their antisocial behavior, and you realize they’ve passed the point of no return. Throughout the movie, we’ve seen Candy and Brit (Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson) act like dangerous, out-of-control brats. They pay for their spring fling by robbing a restaurant. And once in St. Pete, they embrace all the drugs, sex and debauchery oozing around them. But when they cozy up to gangster Alien (James Franco) and flirt by threatening to blow his head off with the revolvers they’re sticking in his mouth, you realize they’re the ice-cold gangsta’s, not him. And that moment is as terrifying as any monster movie like JAWS or Freddy Kruger.
Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson in SPRING BREAKERS.


Granted, this isn’t a horror movie, but it some ways it plays exactly like one. There are monsters on the loose and they wreak all kinds of havoc. And they bring with them a constant threat of danger and death. Move over zombies and vampires, Candy and Brit are on the loose! (And the fact that Hudgens is a former Disney star makes it all a bit more frightening.)

I’ve always believed that the scariest monsters are those of the more human kind (http://bit.ly/10yB3fy). And that’s certainly true here. These monsters are human, and even more deceiving because they come dressed in little more than tanning oil and flip-flops. Watching their amoral antics throughout this film made me realize just how far the female villain in pop culture has come these days. And the motives of these new two villains are truly terrifying.
James Franco in SPRING BREAKERS.

Even going back through the last few years, it was easy to recognize the motives behind other evil female villain characters on screen. Charlize Theron’s wicked queen in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN (2012) was driven by her political desire to remain in power. (My take on her here: http://exm.nr/MbjhaX). In HORRIBLE BOSSES (2011), Jennifer Aniston’s oversexed dentist liked blurring the line between employee and plaything. Even Norma Bates on TV’s current BATES MOTEL (Vera Farmiga) is driven by the desire to make a better go of it for her and son Norman (http://exm.nr/ZKbWoT). But what drives Candy and Brit in SPRING BREAKERS? Little more than a need to be thrilled, to feel something in a world that now bores them.
Charlize Theron in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN

It’s the entitlement generation we now live in, isn’t it? When kids grow up having their own DVR, car and credit car supplied to them, not by hard work but by absentee and enabling parents, those like Candy and Brit are created. When a nation puts wars, tax cuts, and entitlements on the company credit card for the better part of the last 60 years, is it any wonder we have an electorate that wants their country back without any true sacrifice like new taxes or cuts in government spending? Candy and Brit are poster children for a country that has Attention Deficit Disorder, and can’t concentrate on anything in a "play now/pay later" society.

These bored girls float through the whole movie with smug, blasé faces. It’s like they’re in a disaffected haze, trying to embrace the Spring Break chicanery but remaining a bit outside of it at all times. Writer/director Harmony Korine does a magnificent job of informing the tone of his movie by that attitude. Everything is a little dreamy, a little vague, a little removed. The film lives in slow motion, echoing the laissez-faire attitude of these two girls driving the plot.

And drive it they do, cajoling cohorts Faith and Cotty (Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine) to participate in their shenanigans. They’re game all right, a little bored themselves, but they have some conscience unlike their ringleaders. At her core, Faith is trying to live up to her name, and walk the straight path. She turns her back on her religion temporarily to dig into the sins of St. Pete, but when they get arrested for underage drug use, it sobers her up pretty quick. Then, after Alien bails them out of jail, she seizes the opportunity to put it all behind her and hightails it back to college on the next bus.

A day or so later, Cotty comes to the same conclusion after taking a drug dealer’s bullet meant for Alien. The slug is removed from her aching arm, but the wound to her sense of self stings a lot more. She too boards the bus, realizing that college may be a bitch but it beats being one of Alien’s bitches. The other two girls remain, showing no such judgment. They burrow deeper into the lifestyle of no rules, no college classes, no parents, and no norms. Their great motive is to beat the boredom of their everyday existences. And give the finger to their family, society and any semblance of order.
Manson family members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten on trial in 1970.

Vincent Bugliosi, the DA who prosecuted Charles Manson and his followers recognized that there was something inherently evil in the three young women that the cult leader chose to kill for him. Manson knew that Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten had the homicidal predilection already in them. It just needed to be tapped. Candy and Brit are the same. Alien opened the door, but the monster was already inside, itching to be released.
Jodi Arias, currently on trial for murder one in Arizona.


It’s the same thing that Arizona prosecutor Jose Martinez is arguing about in the Jodi Arias trial. Her killing of ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander may have been triggered by her jealousy, but the evil has been inside her forever. Her selfishness and narcissism have driven her all her life. And if her trial has proven anything, it’s that she lost any sense of truth, decency or empathy a long time ago. (http://bit.ly/10yGPxG)
Benson, Franco and Hudgens in character.
The characters of Candy and Brit in SPRING BREAKERS are cut from the same cloth as Arias and those Manson girls. The evil is in them, just waiting to be coaxed out. Alien talks a big game, but at the end when they’re about to pull off a dangerous vendetta against a fellow gangster, he’s worried. They aren’t. And that’s because he’s not as evil as he appears to be. Candy and Brit are the true wolves, albeit dressed in sheep’s clothing. Or in this case, teeny-weeny bikinis. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

CHECK INTO THE TV SERIES BATES MOTEL FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLS & CHILLS


In the original PSYCHO (1960) Norman Bates famously quips, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” So much of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, including famous lines like that, are now so known that they almost play comically. To do something serious with the universally known story of Norman Bates and his legendary mother fixation in today’s cynical times would be truly something. Well, film fans, that’s precisely what A & E’s new TV-series BATES MOTEL has done. It’s a nuanced origins story that treats its source material earnestly and reinvents it smartly for a modern audience. I think it's a tribute to the original that every film fan and even the Master of Suspense would approve of. 
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in A & E's BATES MOTEL.

The character of Norman Bates has always struck me as a pitiable one. He’s a monster, yes, but the woman who put the mother in smothering made him that way. Here, we get to see her in action, as a well-meaning but controlling woman who can be tender and loving one moment and then become manipulative and hard the next. Watching Norman here (Freddie Highmore), struggle to be his own man as he closes in on age 18 is an idea that should sustain the series for sometime. And it proves that bringing one of the film world’s icons to television was a shrewd idea. 

The show opens with Norman’s father dying in the garage. Norman discovers the body and his reactionary panic suggests that he’s not only overly sensitive, but maybe he’s a little psychotic too. His father’s death appears to be from a heart attack, but it’s hard to know for sure. (Perhaps we’ll find out more about what really happened in subsequent episodes. I hope, I hope!) But that death in the family is enough to inspire restless mom Norma (Vera Farmiga) to impulsively pack up and move to California to start over, running a rundown, roadside wreck of a motel.

Norman wants to help her, but he also wants to be a regular teen. He’s tired of moving and wants to feel connected to someone other than her. And early on here, it looks like he might succeed. A number of comely girls at his new school find him attractive. A caring teacher encourages him to take up track. And his aptitude tests show great promise. But his mom resents him having other interests. He’s all she has, so of course she’s possessive. Then when the previous owner of the hotel rapes her in a drunken rage, it’s Norman who comes to her rescue and that helps cement their bond. Then when she kills her rapist with a kitchen knife and Norman helps her dispose of the body, their fate together is sealed.

The makers of this show don’t shy away from showing the rape, or the emotional fallout afterwards from it. It's a pretty gutsy show to spend time on what Norma's experienced and not cut away. Nor does the show avoid other churlish aspects of the material here, including Norman’s attraction to his alluring mother. He spies her undressing one night, catching her in only her bra and panties. He should look away but doesn’t and the suggestion of the incest to follow is unflinching and even shocking for a basic cable series.
Jeff York's original caricature of Anthony Perkins at the end of PSYCHO (1960)

The makers of BATES MOTEL wisely stay away from any aping of the original too, knowing that such a thing could create easy tittering in its viewers. Instead, they only pay homage through some visual references like using Hitchcockian overhead shots here and there and showing a body lying dead in the shower.  Some of Highmore’s personal tics recall Anthony Perkins and his monumental performance from the original. (I wrote about that landmark here in this blog: http://bit.ly/16HjQ6w) But by and large, Highmore finds his own take on the material. He’s quieter, shyer, and slighter in physique and manner than Perkins was.

And Farmiga does absolute wonders with her complex role. We don’t know much about Mrs. Bates from the original PSYCHO, other than the psychiatrist’s appraisal in the denouement. After all, she was only a corpse in the movie. But here Mrs. Bates is a strong, ambitious, and caring woman, striving for something better for her family, and longing to escape a run of bad luck. (She’s got an older, deadbeat son who she’s disowned, and the previews promise quite the fireworks when he shows up to pester her.)
Farmiga can play breezy (UP IN THE AIR), gloomy (HIGHER GROUND), even authoritarian (TIME CODE), and here she gets to play all three. She brings such depth and tragedy to the role, that you’re rooting for her even though you know she’s only going to bring more ruin to their lives.

The future nine episodes, which will Monday nights at 9 PM Central Time, promise a lot more mystery, menace and murder. Who is being shot up with drugs in the first episode’s closing shot? Why does Norma fall into a sexual affair with the town’s deputy? And which of the high school love interests will capture Norman’s heart? Or will he only have eyes for his mom? It’s a lot to look forward to, a much more dangerous dance than anything over at ABC’s DANCING WITH THE STARS. If you love good horror driven by complex characters and clever storytelling, should check into the BATES MOTEL. Just avoid the shower if you know what’s good for you.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

WHY HORROR IS MAKING A KILLING ON TV


As many of you already know, I am a film critic online for the Examiner, often specializing in writing about the horror genre. And there may not always be a lot of good horror to find at the cinema, but there is plenty of amazing stuff to see on TV these days. Shows like THE WALKING DEAD, DEXTER, and AMERICAN HORROR STORY have proven that the genre can thrive in a setting with distinct time limits, as well as violence and language restrictions. In fact, TV looks to become even more of a terrific venue for horror with the premiere of two new shows in the coming weeks. Norman Bates will soon be open for business at the BATES MOTEL, starting March 18 on A & E. And HANNIBAL, based on the “Hannibal the Cannibal” Lecter character of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS franchise fame, is being served up April 4 on NBC. 
Freddie Highmore and Vera Famiga in BATES MOTEL premiering soon on A & E.
Ever since THE SOPRANOS became a critical darling as well as a big ratings winner for HBO back in the early part of this century, networks have been trying to capture a similar dark magic with their own stories centered on killers and very bad eggs. Since then, BREAKING BAD has become one of basic cable’s most respected shows as Walter White as gone from chemistry teacher to drug kingpin in five, terrifying seasons. Showtime’s DEXTER is approaching year seven and has reinvigorated itself in its last couple of seasons by having stepsister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) find out about her stepbrother Dexter's (Michael C. Hall) peccadilloes and joining him on the dark side of the law herself (http://exm.nr/Z98RPz). And Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, Sookie’s vampire lovers, all those sons of anarchy, and half the cast of GAME OF THRONES have proven that being the anti-hero sure beats being a hero on TV these days.
Original caricature of Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and Dexter (Michael C. Hall) In Showtime's DEXTER.


Thus, Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, two of the greatest movie villains of all-time, will soon be starring in their own primetime TV shows. Bryan Fuller, who brought us HEROES a few seasons back, now switches to the other side with his take on the early years of Dr. Lecter’s duel with FBI profiler Will Graham. Mads Mikkelson plays Lecter while Hugh Dancy will essay the role of the bad doctor's crime fighting foil. Mikkelson made mincemeat out of 007’s testicles in CASINO ROYALE in 2006, and we shall now see how he does with a man’s liver, some Fava beans and a nice Chianti. The DeLaurentis Group tried to make more hay out of the character with a youthful film reboot back in 2007 but HANNIBAL RISING bombed big time, so hopefully the American Film Institute’s pick for # 1 villain of all-time (http://bit.ly/oEa39D) will make the transition to the small screen and not bite off more than he can chew.
Mads Mikkelson in NBC's upcoming TV series HANNIBAL.

Then there’s Norman Bates. The AFI’s # 2 villain of all-time has seen his profile turn into just as big a legend since his premiere in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic PSYCHO way back in 1960. For my money, it’s impossible for anyone to top the amazing performance of Anthony Perkins as the mother-fixated motel manager (http://exm.nr/LOCHUQ) and most others agreed, as subsequent PSYCHO sequels or spin-off's wisely turned to him to continue playing the iconic role. But Perkins is no longer with us and the role must be recast. Shrewdly, the makers of BATES MOTEL aren't starting with an adult Norman, but rather a teenager in an origins story, so that will make it a bit easier for an actor to start anew. 

Freddie Highmore, the respected child star of FINDING NEVERLAND (1994), is now 21 and will be portraying the troubled teenage Norman. And the series will concentrate on his early, tempestuous relationship with his demanding mother Norma (Vera Famiga). Famiga is one of the more complex actresses working today and her participation promises something special. And showing how Norman was ‘schooled’ by his namesake parent could illuminate the entire PSYCHO series as I hope that the early years of  Hannibal's  story will do the same for his franchise. Time will tell whether either TV series resonates with the public the way their movie counterparts have for decades now.


To me, as a horror buff, the most promising part of all of this is the continuation of TV thriving in the genre. While big-budget movies are more obsessed with CGI effects and  bloodletting, TV has concentrated on character, which makes all the difference in the world. Perhaps because they cannot be as gory as an R-rated movie, television shows have to make the characters more interesting to keep our attention. But keep us they do, even on a show like AMC's THE WALKING DEAD where the violence is unsettling, but the characterizations are more so. We wouldn't care about what happens on the show, and it wouldn't be basic cable's biggest hit, if it weren't for us caring about what happens to the cadre of complex characters. And care we do, about them, and all the other baddies in primetime who are making for such rich and fascinating character studies. 

It could be a big year for horror, what with BATES MOTEL and HANNIBAL launching in the next weeks, along with the premieres of big screen remakes like CARRIE, EVIL DEAD, and HELLRAISER due in the coming months. I'm also looking forward to the theatrical releases of original works like WORLD WAR Z, THE LORDS OF SALEM and ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE as well. With all that, who needs the Jodi Arias trial on TV? And frankly, that nightmare is just too horrifying to watch. Even for me. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

THE PROBLEM WITH TENT-POLE PICTURES


I really enjoyed JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, the new riff on the famous children’s tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. It made $27 million and took first place in the weekend box office, so clearly a lot of people liked it too. Unfortunately, it cost almost $300 million to make, so of course the industry now considers it a bust. Ah, Hollywood.

The movie was considered one of Warner Bros.’ tent-pole picture for the year. The term tent-pole picture refers to a motion picture expected to hold up (as is the function of a tent-pole) and balance out the financial performance of a movie studio or television network. That’s a big burden, so usually it falls upon a film or two that the studio thinks has the broadest audience appeal. And those tend to be the movies they spend a lot on to make hoping they’re going to be huge blockbusters. The thinking is the bigger the movie, the bigger the desire to see such a spectacle, the more tickets will be sold.

So what went wrong? Did it get lost in the week after the Oscars when everyone was still talking about ARGO’s victory, Jennifer Lawrence’s tripping up the stairs, and Seth Macfarlane’s misguided hosting? Was it overshadowed by that other big, fantasy tent-pole picture – OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL – which is scheduled to open a mere week later – the one that is being advertised everywhere around the clock, even on the Home Shopping Network? Or was it something else, perhaps the simple fact that any investment of $300 million on one movie is a ridiculous gamble? 

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Frankly, I don’t understand how a studio can spend that much money on any one film. Unless it’s a chapter in the STAR WARS saga, how does any film evoke such bald-faced confidence in a town famous for it’s “me too-ness”? And how can any studio executive make such an ‘all-or-nothing’ gamble in an economy like this one? 

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER reportedly cost 200 million to make, and another 100 million to advertise. The CGI work, mostly of the giants, is incredibly detailed special effects work that truly is a marvel to see. I’m usually not all that impressed by motion capture technology as I think it failed everything from FINAL FANTASY to BEOWULF, but here it was marvelous. The giants seemed utterly real yet not exactly human, but they made for incredibly intimidating villains that really made the picture the marvel that it was.














So...why the fail in the minds of the industry speculators? How and why did this really terrific fantasy film let down all those great expectations? I think there might be a few reasons. The story is a little on the ‘kiddie’ side, even though this is an edgy, more ‘young adult’ take on the material. (Jack even wears a hoodie in it, albeit a leather one.) The biggest star in it, Ewan McGregor, is terrific but his role is a supporting one and the studio didn’t push him all that hard in its promotions. And the posters were not all that great as it’s hard to capture the true scale of the relationships between Jack and the giants in a 27” x 40” size movie poster broadsheet.

But the biggest problem with this tent-pole picture, and any tent-pole picture, is that the investment is simply too large. That is a ridiculous amount of money for one two-hour movie. My God, 10-hour mini-series on HBO haven’t cost that much. Imagine what else $300 million could buy in the entertainment world, like 30 movies made for $10 million each. A movie like BEGINNERS in 2011, also starring Ewan McGregor, cost just $3.2 million and reaped $14 million worldwide. That’s a great return will little downside to the investment. (By the time it was sold overseas, won supporting star Christopher Plummer an Oscar, and appeared on the DVD shelf it had taken in another $5 million.) And then there was Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning MIDNIGHT IN PARIS made in that same year. It cost $17 million to make and grossed $155 million worldwide. As much as I enjoyed JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, I’d rather see ten or twenty or thirty MIDNIGHT IN PARIS type films.

I also happen to think that the studios have to get out of the mindset of trying to perennially cow-tow to the teen audience. That audience is fickle and has been fractioning for years now. Sure, they went in droves to see the TWILIGHT movies and will line up eagerly for the upcoming HUNGER GAMES sequel, but they'll go and see most horror movies too, and those aren't that expensive to make. There's plenty they'll fork over $11 to see without it having to have a CGI effect in every scene. 

And why not cater more to the adult audience? They're growing and these days will see a movie they like again and again, similar to teen ticket-buying habits. Movies like ARGO, LINCOLN and LIFE OF PI weren't just critical successes, they made significant money too because of moviegoers over 21. And a lot of those adults paid to see those films more than once.

Whether it’s films like JACK THE GIANT SLAYER or big, pricey comic book movies, anything being deemed a tent-pole pictures these days is going to be a gamble. Perhaps it’s time to put away such childish things. Not everything has to be aimed at a broad audience, or filled frame-to-frame with eye-popping special effects. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln was a greater ‘special effect’ than any twisting beanstalk jutting up into the sky. Maybe if the studios didn’t aim quite so high, their expectations would be more down-to-earth. And the morning after wouldn’t be filled with such mournful stories as a that of a tent-pole picture like JACK THE GIANT SLAYER crashing to earth. You know what they say - the bigger they are, the harder they fall.