Tag Archives: Stanley Kubrick

“Doctor Sleep” (2019) was ABSOLUTELY ****ING FABULOUS.

“Doctor Sleep” (2019) was ABSOLUTELY ****ING FABULOUS. I had high hopes for this movie after seeing the trailer — yet it exceeded my expectations. I’d easily rate this a 10 out of 10.

This is a story-driven horror film just brimming with blackly creative ideas and weird world-building — I haven’t read Stephen King’s source material, but I feel certain this was a loving adaptation of the 2013 novel. It is also genuinely touching at times. (I was trying to explain to a dear friend recently about how King’s work can surprise the uninitiated — the monsters and devils typically occupy only a portion of his imaginary landscapes. The remainder is inhabited by good people who are bravely doing the right thing.)

All of the movie’s story elements are painted vibrantly by Mike Flanagan’s beautiful screenwriting and nightmarishly trippy directing. The film’s action and often incongruously bright visuals are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s visions in “The Shining” (1980), to which this film is truly a worthy successor. (Flanagan was the director and screenwriter for last year’s fantastic “The Haunting of Hill House.” The qualities that you loved about the Netflix show can also be found in “Doctor Sleep” — in some ways, they are very similar stories.)

Rebecca Ferguson is mesmerizing as the story’s antagonist, Kyliegh Curran is pitch perfect as the young anti-hero, and Ewan McGregor is predictably terrific.

The only quibbles I had were minor — there was one plot device (presumably from the novel) that didn’t translate well to the screen. It concerns how the bad guys replenish themselves … I’ll bet it worked well in King’s prose, but it seemed corny and cliche when visualized on film.

You could also argue that “Doctor Sleep’s” constant references to “The Shining” were pretty heavy-handed. But that didn’t bother me too much … I arrived at the conclusion that “The Shining” and “Doctor Sleep” were really two halves of an epic supernatural road trip. Your mileage may vary.

One final caveat — this film does portray violence against children. It isn’t extremely graphic, but it’s still especially disturbing. (It technically isn’t gratuitous, I suppose, because there is an in-universe reason why Ferguson’s tribe of villains targets the young.)

This is easily the best horror film that I’ve seen in years. Go see it.

 

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A review of “Phantasm” (1979)

I don’t enjoy panning films that others revere.  There’s no percentage in it.  I’m not the guy who tries to be edgy or cool by telling you he dislikes something that everyone else loves.

But I do need to tell you that I think that “Phantasm” (1979) is a bad movie.  I’d rate it a 3 out of 10, based on some interesting ingredients, but I suspect that even that is a bit generous.  I finally managed to make it through its entire running time tonight, and it feels amateurish on every level.

It’s poorly scripted, directed and edited, with performances that are nearly all quite bad.  The first exception here is A. Michael Baldwin, who was a decent child actor when this movie was made, and who was quite likable as the story’s adolescent protagonist.  The second exception, I suppose, is “The Tall Man” himself, Angus Scrimm, the deep-voiced and admittedly unsettling big-bad.

There’s really only one other positive thing I can say about the movie — it has a damned good set design for its mausoleum.  (Somewhat confusingly, the film suggests this is located … inside the funeral home itself?  Is that a thing in some places?  I honestly don’t know.)  The set is simultaneously beautiful and frightening, with symmetrical hallways of contrasting white and red — the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Stanley Kubrick film.  I can’t escape the suspicion that it was somehow pilfered from a far better film.

And I do understand the unconscious appeal of “Phantasm’s” story.  We see an adolescent boy who has lost his parents team up with his likable older brother to fight mysterious monsters at their local funeral home.  They enlist the aid of the brother’s guitar-playing, everyman best friend, they use everyday weapons like guns and knives, and they bond over the shared experience.  It’s a tailor-made, understandable power fantasy for any adolescent boy first grasping adult concepts of death and mortality.

But … those things aren’t enough to redeem the film.  In my opinion, it’s bad enough to be a candidate for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.

Hey — what do I know?  Your mileage may vary.  “Phantasm” has a cult following in the horror community, and spawned no fewer than four sequels.  (The latest, “Phantasm: Ravager,” was released just three years ago.)  You might enjoy it, or you might need to watch it out of curiosity, as I did.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show.  They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.

Can ghosts … kill you?  Injure you?  That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature.  Can they … scare you to death?  How would that work?  Would they cause a heart attack?  Or drive you mad?  That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies.  Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality?  For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.

It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me.  We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable.  It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.

The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated).  Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit.  The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.

Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980).  Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful.  Even the makeup effects were damned good.  (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)

I’m not the only one who loved this show either.  It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers).  I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.

Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me.  “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did.  And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.

Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic.  (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche.  I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”)  I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride.  (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)

Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first.  You’ll be glad you did.

Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”

 

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Dennis Villelmi interviews the Woman in Room 237!

If you are a horror fan, you’re in for a rare treat.  Stop over at The Bees Are Dead to read Dennis Villelmi’s interview with Lia Beldam, who portrayed the woman in Room 237 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining.”  (Fans of the 1977 novel and its 2013 sequel, “Doctor Sleep,” may recognize the character as the ghost of Lorraine Massey.)

Dennis chatted with Ms. Beldam about a few different aspects of filming — including her experiences with Kubrick and Jack Nicholson.  It’s great stuff.

 

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“The Revenant” (2015) was astonishingly good.

“The Revenant” (2015) changed the way that I see movies.  This utterly immersive, jaw-droppingly gorgeous period thriller is easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I plan to see it again, soon.  I’d rate it a perfect 10.

It’s a visual masterpiece.  Its cinematography renders its mountains, valleys and plains both dreamlike and lucid, and its action is unflinchingly visceral.  Shot mostly in Alberta, Canada (standing in for 1823 Montana and South Dakota), the film’s visuals are more stunning than anything I’ve ever seen.  You truly do feel that “you are there.”  But “there” is an absolutely brutal 19th century middle American winter wilderness.  It’s fatally dangerous, both with its unforgiving elements and with the human violence that seems to erupt casually and constantly over its land and resources — not to mention bloody retribution among groups and individuals.  This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart.  I won’t spoil the subject of its gut-wrenching action sequences for fear of spoilers — most of these sequences arrive as frightening surprises, thanks to Alejandro G. Inarritu’s expert direction.  It is this juxtaposition of beauty and brutality that define the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an American trapper who begins as one of the seemingly few characters that do not quickly resort to unnecessary violence, prejudice or revenge.  He later does seek vengeance for his son’s death against fellow trapper John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy.  (Glass was a real frontiersman who was the subject of Michael Punke’s 2002 biography, “The Revenant.”  But a cursory Google search suggests to me that this is not actually “a true story;” I think of it as loosely based historical fiction.)  Like DiCaprio and Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also excel in their supporting roles.  (Gleeson seems to specialize in playing reluctant innocents; I remember him from his skilled performance as the gentle young computer genius in last year’s outstanding science fiction thriller, “Ex Machina.”)

But the main star of “The Revenant” is the setting itself, beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lebezki and masterfully employed by Inarritu as a kind of character unto itself in the story.  It’s lovely.  I’ve never seen a movie like this.  And while I’m no film connoisseur, or even a genuine critic, I’ve seen a lot of good ones.

The direction most reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s work in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now.”  I was also reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) — that was a film that also depicted threatening snowscapes as dreamlike and eerily beautiful.  There was one shot near the end, following DiCaprio’s vengeful hero on his path through immense firs on either side — it reminded me a lot of Jack Nicholson’s murderous Jack Torrance on his path through the hellish hedge labyrinth.

There is also a central action set piece involving an attack on one group of characters on another — it actually reminded me of Oliver Stone’s work in “Platoon” (1986).  Like Stone’s finale, the battle is staged so that the viewers have no sense of which direction the attack is coming from, paralleling the experience of the confused defenders.  There are countless long tracking shots throughout this film, with fewer cuts — and amazing circular surrounding shots of the action.  I’ve read that Inarritu actually had to transport cranes to his mountaintop shooting locations in order to execute those.

If you had to find a flaw with “The Revenant,” I suppose you could complain that its story and characters are thin.  We know little more about DiCaprio’s Glass beyond that he is competent, patient and slow to fight — then merciless and unrelenting in seeking justice.  Poulter’s Jim Bridger  is loyal, but not as strong as the hero.  Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a greedy, opportunistic bully whose murder of an innocent drives the plot.  That’s … little more than the plot and characters of a lot of throwaway westerns, isn’t it?  (I’ve indeed seen this movie categorized as a western in reviews.  That’s technically correct, I guess, but it feels too unique to pigeonhole that way.)

You could easily read the movie for moral ambiguity.  There are the obvious issues connected with revenge, of course, underscored by a final shot in which one character appears to break the fourth wall.  I found myself wondering about Glass’ compatriots.  Yes, it is Fitzgerald who acts villainously, but all of Glass’ fellow trappers also consign him to death by abandoning him after his injuries.  I do understand that they feel they can’t survive themselves if they try to carry him back to their staging area at Fort Kiowa.  But … is what they do “right?”  What would you or I do?

I think I am coming too close here to revealing too much about the film.  The best way to experience “The Revenant” is to walk into it knowing little about it.  I strongly recommend you do so.

 

 

 

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Throwback Thursday: the Commodore 64

[WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR “TERMINATOR SALVATION” (2009).  (NO, SERIOUSLY.)]

Pictured below is the Commodore 64, which was the most popular brand of personal computer in the 1980’s.  My mother bought me one, and I still feel guilty about it.  Because it cost more than $600 and, frankly, I can’t remember successfully accomplishing any conceivable  purpose with it, ever.

Let me explain.  I think maybe a lot of people were in my position.  The advent of PC’s was a strange phenomenon among average American households.  Advertising promised us that computers represented “the future” or an opportunity to “discover new worlds.”

One of the greatest lessons life has taught me is that, when people employ only vague and abstract language when they speak, it usually means that they have no facts or concrete information to support their message.  And retrospect strongly suggests that at least some of those ads were simply false advertising.

Look at the one in the third picture below.  The ad ambitiously advises parents that if they want their “child” to “get into a good college,” the Commodore 64 could help them “rack up points on … the SAT test.”  And, for this actionable information, we could thank that trusted standby, “a recent study.”

Well, first of all, the copywriters for this ad sound pretty unfamiliar with “the SAT test,” because there was no “SAT test.”  It was simply the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” or “SAT.”  If you called it “the SAT test,” that meant you were too stupid to recognize a simple redundancy, and that might actually prevent you from “getting into a good college.”

If you were wise, and did want to “rack up points” on “the SAT test,” you took the PSAT for practice.  Then you got a hold of that “Princeton Review” study guide.  Whether the “study guide” helped you to simply beat the test, or give you an unfair advantage, is a tangential issue that I won’t explore here.  I will tell you that it sure as hell boosted my score, and I was no goddam Copernicus, especially back in those days.  But never once did I hear about anyone using a home computer to boost their score.

So, in 1985 or so, this slightly befuddled junior high school student wasn’t too clear about what I was supposed to do with a computer.  I knew it was a status symbol in some circles, yet a social liability in others.  (“Nerd!”)  I knew that I should be thankful for being the recipient of such a pricey toy, and I was aware that its presence vaguely suggested that I would eventually be college bound, as my siblings had been.

Every kid back then wanted to know if computers could be used to change their grades remotely, as Matthew Broderick had done in 1983’s “War Games.”  Well, I certainly never approached the task, as we did not have a modem.  My far smarter friend on the next street, Keith Nagel, actually DID have a modem, but if he ever penetrated either the Longwood School District or the Defense Department, he never told me about it.  (Yes, kids, back then, modems, “monitors,” and “disk drives” were all things that were purchased separately — beyond that $600 you paid for the “computer,” which was housed in the bulky keyboard itself.)

I learned all of this in Mr. Anderson’s “Computer Literacy” class via the Longwood School District.  Forget website design or online marketing — when I was a kid, computers were so new that we endeavored merely to be “literate” about them.  The curriculum included helpful black and white illustrations of modems, monitors and disk drives, so that we knew the differences among them.  If you wanted to sound especially computer savvy, then you referred to a monitor as a “C.R.T.,” or “cathode ray tube.”  We were actually tested on such illustrations.

For some reason, the difference between ROM (Read Only Memory) and RAM (Random Access Memory) was considered crucial to “computer literacy.”  We also learned how to write a simple “loop” program in … Basic, I think.

True to form for teachers in the Longwood School District, Mr. Anderson was a terrific educator.  That didn’t stop various efforts by students to traumatize him and make him regret certain choices in life.

The “burnout kids” (metal-heads, in the more modern parlance) were a group I rarely mixed with, and they were a junior high subculture not known for academic excellence.  But when it came time to master the rudimentary 80’s-era text-to-speech program, they REALLY applied themselves.

Making a computer talk, and say whatever you wanted, was considered pretty cool back then. Turns out the burnouts were a hell of a lot smarter than anyone gave them credit for, because they mastered it quickly — far faster than I did.  Of course they programmed it to taunt the teacher.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, MR. ANDERSON?!”  I can still hear that electronic voice, and then the burnouts mimicking it ad infinitum.  Mr. Anderson got pissed and had to tell them to knock it off.  It was beautiful.  It is almost EXACTLY what the HAL 9000 said to Dave Bowman on the doomed Jupiter mission, even though I’m pretty sure nobody in that class (including me) had yet seen Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Maybe those burnout kids made fun of me once in a while, but the nascent subversive in me just had to admire that handiwork.

Wait … I … might have succeeded in running a really cool PC game called “Impossible Mission” on the Commodore once.  (See the second photo.)  That was until I got dust on the disk or something, and the game malfunctioned.  (All the tunnels and elevators disappeared, and my guy kept running around in this gray … space or purgatory or something.)

By the time I entered college, I had swapped out my Commodore for an “electronic typewriter.”  That, kids, was a sort of hybrid between a computer and a typewriter.  Think of the the “Terminator Salvation” character, Marcus Wright.  (Or … y’know, think about Bryce Dallas Howareyadarlin’ as Kate Connor, because that’s far more pleasant.  Just don’t think about the movie’s script.)

You could carry an electronic typewriter.  Also … it felt right.  By the time I reached 18, I already dreamed of being the next Stephen King.  And a traditional typewriter seemed somehow emblematic of that.

I even took that typewriter with me to Mary Washington College’s Bushnell Hall in the Fall of 1990.  I kinda never used it, though.  I was having far too fine a time as a first-semester college freshman to turn in any typewritten papers, if memory serves.  My class attendance rate was maybe … 80 percent?  Eighty-five percent?

I wound up on “academic probation.”  My typewriter wound up at the bottom of my closet.

Oh, well.  At least I had gotten “into a good college.”

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All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.