Escape from Room 237

As a big fan of Stanley Kubrick, arguably the greatest director of all time, I was eagerly anticipating Room 237 and wanted to make sure I saw it on the big screen.  I was hugely disappointed.  The documentary is comprised of interviews with a small group of Kubrick-leaning cinephiles that pick apart tiny details in The Shining and use them to justify various theories about the movie and Kubrick’s hidden messages.  The most prevalent theme is that The Shining is really about the genocide of American native peoples and/or Holocaust victims.  Another theory presumably presented as fact is that the footage of the moon landing was faked, and faked by none other than Kubrick himself.  Supposedly there are all sorts of hidden jokes also present in The Shining, which are really easy to see once you start watching the movie at home frame-by-frame, a completely ridiculous supposition given that the movie came out in 1980 and was meant to be watched only in the theater.  DVD did not exist then, and neither did widespread consumer VCR use, nor VCRs that could clearly pause movie frames.

Room_237 poster smallI am not saying there is no validity to any of the theories posited, but I am saying these people are reading way too much into the minutiae of the movie.  And I’m also saying ‘so what?’  After having visited the fascinating LACMA Kubrick exhibit (still going a little while longer), I was hoping for more juicy insight into Kubrick and the movie-making process, more of the type of truly interesting discovery that I found in that exhibit.  None of that is to be found in Room 237.

What makes this movie even worse is that it is not even particularly interesting.  Consider the mastery of great documentary film: The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Catfish, Searching for Sugar Man.  These films present their story in such a way as to develop character and plot in a way just as engrossing as good fictional drama.  Truth is often stranger than fiction, and these documentaries fully exploit that concept.  But not Room 237.  It’s just the delivery of one hackneyed, minimally qualified idea after another which do very little to offer any true insight into The Shining or the making thereof.

The highlight of Room 237 is at the very beginning of the film, where an interviewee speaks of the British movie posters for The Shining promoting “The wave of terror that swept across America.”  From there it goes into the Indian genocide theory, which I found cogent.  This bit at the beginning saves the movie from a lesser rating.  But Kubrick fans should do themselves a favor and watch one of his movies again; they’ll get more out of it than watching Room 237.  2/10

How Divine is Holy Motors?

Holy Motors Still

Holy Motors has received a lot of acclaim in the cinephile world.  I first heard about it from Film Crit Hulk, who put it at No. 1 of 2012, and Hulk wasn’t alone.  It enjoys a 90% Tomatometer score and was in contention for the Palme d’Or.  For me though,… I wasn’t feeling it.

For a good summary of what this movie’s about, read Roger Ebert’s review (he also liked it).  For me, it felt like an extended Twilight Zone episode without a concluding moral payoff.  It is a deeply original and ambitious vision, and I have a great deal of appreciation for it on that level.  At the outset I was fascinated — completely captivated.  But around half-way through I began to feel that an essential personal narrative was missing, that our hero was not experiencing growth in any profound way.  David Denby of The New Yorker puts it this way: “Holy Motors has no motor: the movie keeps starting over again.”

There are some great sequences in this movie.  But, as hard as it is trying to strike great and timeless themes, Holy Motors is on a road to nowhere.  It strives to be a movie entirely about the human soul, while simultaneously soulless.  At least that’s how I felt about it the first time around watching it last night.  I’ve said something else about movies: please give me something memorable.  I won’t be forgetting this one any time soon.  Bear in mind that I didn’t care much for Mulholland Dr. the first time around, so my initial impression can, in rare instances, develop over time.  There were factors in favor of Mulholland Dr. that I do not believe benefit Holy Motors, so I doubt it.  We’ll see. 4/10

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Note: This movie is in French with English subtitles, but there is relatively little dialogue so, as foreign as this movie is on all sorts of levels, its language is the least you have to worry about.

Comparison Notes: Not Recommended: Blade Runner; Recommended: The Skin I Live In, Wings of Desire, The City of Lost Children, Eraserhead, Synecdoche, New York, Antichrist, Breaking the Waves, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Friday Fun Flick: Napoleon Dynamite

OKAY, yes, this is an obvious one.  But in these posts I do whatever I feel like I wanna do.  Gosh!

I’m sure most of you have already seen it.  But I’ve got to put my two bits in: it’s a terrifically fun and inventive comedy, and a quintessentially American classic in the same sense as is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Blue Velvet.  9/10

Napoleon Dynamite Poster

Absolutely Sinister – NOT!

SinisterI kept wanting to watch Sinister when it was in theaters last year, because I like a good horror flick and I’m a fan of Ethan Hawke, but mixed ratings kept me away.  Now I understand the negative reviews.  It is your basic haunted house movie, but not a good one.  It’s highly unoriginal, not scary at all — except for the first scene, and at times farcically corny.  And it has a lot of “stupid” problems like the main character (Hawke) screaming his head off — multiple times — without waking any family members.

What I don’t get is that a lot of people thought this was a good movie.  A lot of people who supposedly are fans of the genre, which means they’ve seen good fantasy/horror/haunted spirit movies, can’t tell the difference.  Maybe the problem is that though there are a few standouts like The RingThe Shining, and Poltergeist, the vast majority of these movies are pretty bad.  So make yourself a fan of the genre and it all blends together.  Just a theory.

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity

For a much better haunted house movie, see Paranormal Activity (2007) if you haven’t already.  Or even if you have – Paranormal Activity a second time through is better than Sinister the first.  I looked back at my comments on Paranormal ActivityI had given it a 7/10.  Thinking more about it now, I’d say it was more scary than a 7 — so I’m bumping it to an 8.  Keep in mind I am talking about the original of the series; I have not seen any of the sequels.

On a positive note, I watched Sinister shortly before going to bed, and it certainly did not keep me from sleeping.  It just wasn’t scary.  2/10, which is generous.

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This movie makes me rethink my opinion of Mama (2/10), because I didn’t dislike Sinister quite so much as to give it a 1 rating, and Mama was clearly better than Sinister.  I think Mama has got to be at least a 3 — still not recommended, but better than I originally thought given the genre.  It emphasizes how difficult it is to make good horror, especially of the supernatural variety.  Almost as difficult as good comedy.

Film Notes: The Place Beyond the Pines

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Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond the Pines

I was excited enough about this movie that I had posted three times before on it.  If you, like me, were eagerly anticipating the pairing of two of the hottest A-list actors today in the same movie, The Place Beyond the Pines does deliver that.  However, if you were waiting to see Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper actually acting together in the same scenes, eh, no… you won’t get that here.

Like its title, The Place Beyond the Pines rambles too much, without understanding how to construct the climax that everyone is expecting and deserving.  The director Derek Cianfrance more or less abandons the taut style that served so well in his previous work Blue Valentine.  I think he was trying for an epic-ish vision in 3 acts, perhaps in order to demonstrate his breadth, his ability to make grand tales and move beyond the small intimate indie.

This movie begins with a great deal of promise, and the first part with Gosling is quite gripping.  The second third is good too.  I kept giving Pines the benefit of the doubt, and was thinking happy thoughts with expectation of a great and explosive climax — but ultimately it just peters out.  I reckon Cianfrance is attempting some greater message on redemption, forgiveness and loss, but he forgets that story must come first.

Beyond the Pines also has a major continuity problem that is generally solved in film school 101: when you jump forward 15 years in time, you need to make the characters look a little older.  I mean, nothing extravagant, but after 15 years people don’t look the same as they did before 15 years.  Especially as in the case of one character, a drug-addled abuser who couldn’t possibly make it another year, much less 15.  Try a little makeup, people.

As I’ve said before, Ryan Gosling is the best actor working today.  He is the Jack Nicholson of his age: always fascinating no matter what he is doing on camera.  He’s great here too.  And Limitless caused me to gain respect for Bradley Cooper that would otherwise be flushed away by The Hangover and the stupid dance-off sitcom un-movie Silver Linings Playbook.  And I like him in this movie.  But in the end, there is nothing from a story perspective that stands out here.  This is not going to be a movie that you remember a few years down the line, and for that reason I cannot recommend it.  There is a lot that does work, but more that doesn’t.  5/10

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Comparison Notes: The Departed, Reservation Road, Mystic River

Friday Fun Flick: The Fall

Just a gorgeous movie.  I was fortunate enough to see it in the theater.  Make sure to watch on as big a screen as you can muster.  9/10

That’s all I was going to say about it, but I looked up Roger Ebert’s review (he gave it his highest rating) and agree wholeheartedly:

Tarsem’s “The Fall” is a mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free-fall from reality into uncharted realms.

I could quote more of Ebert’s review, but it is an excellently written summary of why you should see this movie, so not a bad idea to read the entire piece.

And… happy 100th post!  I am happy the way this blog is going, and I hope you too are liking it.

Watch Watchmen?

I had mixed feelings about Watchmen (2009).  At 162 mins., it’s draggy here and there and overall not the greatest success.  But it has a number of good sequences and cool visuals, and I dig its vibe.  Especially fun is the intro credit sequence.  As far as the spate of comic-book movies goes, you could do a lot worse: Watchmen was better than last year’s The Avengers, and I think it captures more of the pure essence of the Batman comic books than the recent, overrated Christian Bale triptych itself does.

Time’s Richard Corliss wrote:

Both admirable for and cramped by its fidelity to the Moore vision, this ambitious picture is a thing of bits and pieces.  Yes, the bits are glorious, the pieces magnificent. Still, this Watchmen is more like a swatch-man.

It’s been too long for me to provide a numerical rating, but I give Watchmen a qualified recommendation: watch the preview first.  If it appeals to you and you like the genre, go for it and settle in for a long one.

Topical Tuesday: Brazil and the Boston Bombings

I saw a posting on Facebook yesterday in reaction to the Boston bombings: “When will the violence end?”  My answer: never, or at least not in our lifetimes.  Hate to be so morbid about it.  That posting stuck in my mind for a while, and later last night I drew a connection to a movie in which terrorist attacks are a de facto part of everyday life which everyone accepts and deals with the best they can: Brazil.

In Brazil, our hero Sam Lowry is eating dinner with his mother and a fixed-up date in a posh gourmet restaurant — though the quality of their gastronomic indulgence might be questioned as they are served what appears to be something like cat food, or at best baby food.  In one quadrant of the restaurant an explosion goes off, and the dining party complains briefly but then go on with their repast as the four-piece orchestra resumes play and wait staff bring in a partition so as to reduce their exposure to the casualties.  This scene is a good and typical example of the way in which Brazil is a masterpiece of the highest order.


Jonathan Pryce and Ian Holm in Brazil

A tremendous amount of written material exists about this landmark film.  The Times’ Janet Maslin:

TERRY GILLIAM’S ”Brazil,” a jaunty, wittily observed vision of an extremely bleak future, is a superb example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas, even solemn ones.

and Kenneth Turan of the the L.A. Times called it (citation from Wikipedia) “the most potent piece of satiric political cinema since Dr. Strangelove.”  I previously praised the film’s invention of “hackneyed apparatuses,” and went on to say:

Brazil is a gorgeous, exceptionally rich film, a great cinematic masterpiece.  It is the magnum opus of director Terry Gilliam from the Monty Python school.  I had become certain that it was a version of Orwell’s 1984, but I’ve read that the writers did not have that in mind at all.  There are enough differences, but the over-arching storyline is identical as far as I am concerned.  This film, as I said, is rich – a visual feast.  Humor Brazil Posterruns throughout the film, and not generally dark, but more farcical.  The comedy plays in complementary relief to the more serious tones of the film, which surround a great, romantic, compelling story.

That story, very briefly, involves our hapless hero Sam Lowry (Pryce), a bureaucrat stuck in the midst of one of the several ministries which comprise the giant overbearing government.  On a field trip to return a payment to a citizen, he catches a glimpse of a girl, becomes enraptured, and the romance begins.  At the same time he becomes snarled up, literally, in the government tangles that he has shown to be adept at managing.  As I said, the general storyline follows 1984, but less the hopeless oppression and with enough differences to keep you wondering what will develop next.

Brazil in my mind is an ‘essential’ just as much as Casablanca, Blue Velvet, 2001, or Pulp Fiction.  If you have not seen it, try to do so with the best viewing technology available (Blu-ray), and stick with the original theatrical release [Amazon link] — avoid the alternate versions available on the Criterion Collection release.  10/10

A good quality trailer I cannot find in internet-land; this one will suffice:

Now on DVD & Blu-ray: Django Unchained

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Django Unchained, the best movie of 2012, is available today on DVD & Blu-Ray (It had already been available via streaming on iTunes/Apple TV).  Read my review here.  Hopefully you’ve already had a chance to see it in the theater, but if not, it should translate well to home viewing.