Monday, May 31, 2010

#16 Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

"A Key Work in the history of film"

It can be argued that there is no story or character more adapted and done in film than vampires, and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It has been done so much that we are going to be doing a week of Dracula, and even then there are more to go on the list. Our first film in this our first Dracula/Vampire week is Nosferatu: eine Syphonie des Grauens, a German film released in 1922. Nosferatu was a film I didn’t know very much about. To be honest, the only time I had ever heard of it before a year ago was on an episode of Spongebob. But then again, the combination of Dracula – I used to avoid horror films like the plague – and silent films, which I haven’t looked at seriously until very recently. However, looking at the film now, I really wish I had discovered these movies earlier.
The story of this film is funny. Funny in that it very closely resembles the novel written by Bram Stoker that it’s based on, but is just slightly different. This is because the film makers could not gain the rights to the book. Instead of taking place in London, the story takes place in a small village in Austria Hungary. The main character is Thomas Hutter, a young, ambitious real estate agent, who has recently been wedded to a woman Ellen. The real story begins when Hutter’s boss, Knock tells Hutter that one Count Orlok is interested in buying a house in town, and Knock sends Hutter to sell him the house across from his. So, Hutter sets out, and starts exxperiencing creepy stuff. Despite the warnings of the villagers he meets, he presses on, eventually reaching the castle. Hutter is eventually successfully sells the house to Orlok, but in the process discovers that Orlok (Dracula) is a nosferatu (vampire), and is hell-bent on taking Hutter’s (Harker‘s) wife (fiancé) for his own. Orlok incapacitates Hutter, and sets out to get at Ellen (Mina). Hutter eventually comes to his senses, and the story becomes a race between Orlok and Hutter to get home first. Hutter succeeds, but Orlok is fast on his heels. In the meantime, Knock has become the equivalent of Renfield in the book, and starts going crazy. When Orlok arrives, as in the book, he comes by boat, and ends up killing everyone on board. When the boat arrives, the townsfolk suspect plague, and so put the whole town on quarantine. When people start dying, the townsfolk blame the whole thing on Knock, and so start chasing him through the town. Ellen, in the meantime, starts doing research, and learns that the only way to defeat the nosferatu, is not by a steak through the heart, but by seducing him the entire night, and getting him caught in daylight. She does this, much to Hutter’s dismay, and the film ends with Orlok dead, and Ellen dying in Hutter’s arms.
As I said before with Metropolis, I love the acting in these silent films. The concept of emoting rather than dialogue is compelling and different enough for me to find it interesting. Hutter is quite good, and Ellen is absolutely gorgeous, always a must for these types of films. Naturally, the show stealer in this film is Orlok. Playing the count, he is quite good, but as the Nosferatu, he is stupendous. It really is one of those seminal roles, like Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s Monster, or Bela Lugosi playing Dracula a decade later. The camerawork in this film is equally good, it’s nearly a character of its own. There are some truly spectacular shots of the beautiful Carpathian mountains. The film also does a great job with shadows. One of my favorite scenes is Orlok closing in on Hutter, and the scene shows the shadows of the claws of the nosferatu enveloping him. Another cool thing the film does is differentiate between night and day. Naturally this film came out before the development of lighting and night shooting, so the film shoots everything during the day, and differentiates with different filters – a yellow one for day, and a blue one for night.
The only problem I have with this film, as I had with Metropolis, is the music. These silent films generally had live music that was performed live to the music, meaning there is no audio tracks in these films. Because of that, when these films are restored, a composer comes in and makes a new audio track for the film. Usually these tracks are atrociously bad, and often do not match with what’s going on in the film. For Nosferatu, this is particularly bad. It got so unbearable that at one point I actually did mute the sound because it was that bad. However, int eh face of the overall excellence of this film, the music is tolerable.
Dracula seems to be one of those stories that has captivated audiences since the story was first published in the 1880s. It is one of the most done – or possibly overdone – stories and genres in film. From Les Vampyrs to Twilight, vampires have been sparking the imaginations of humanity for generations. And this is why this film is on the list. It’s one of the first – and certainly the first feature length – vampire films to ever come out, and the first Dracula adaptation. Because of this, this film has come to be a seminal – archetypal – film, and has come to establish many of the tropes common in vampire films. It’s also notable for its special effects and costume work, not to mention the stupendous job of Max Schreck as Count Orlok. All of these things combine to make one of the greatest, and most monumental movies in film, a film that needs to be seen by any patron of film.

Friday, May 21, 2010

#15 The Birds (1963)

"An interesting examination of the human psyche"

Our final movie of this our first of many Hitchcock weeks is The Birds. This movie is exceedingly notorious, and was, in fact, the only Hitchcock movie I knew of for the first, probably 14 years of my life. This movie is interesting in that it is nothing at all like the other Hitchcock movies of this week; the story is not at all complex, nothing is explained at the end, there are no big twists. The lack of twists in this movie can itself almost be considered a twist. Throughout the whole of the movie I was expecting a twist, expecting the crazy birds to be explained, but it never came. I was so surprised, I felt hollow inside because of it. But that’s the point. This movie isn’t about why or how, it’s about what. The film is really an exploration into what people do when a disaster sets in, how people respond to terror and mass hysteria, and in this realm, the movie is extraordinarily successful.
The film is about Melanie Daniels, a wealthy daughter of a newspaper magnate living in San Francisco. We first see her in a pet store, where she is picking up a bird, when she meets up with Mitch Brenner, a lawyer, who reveals that Melanie is quite the prankster. After their brusque meeting, Melanie takes a fancy to the man, and tries to find out where he lives, which turns out to be a sleepy little port town 60 miles up the coast called Bodega Bay. She follows him up there, and their courtship begins. During this period, however, weird things begin to happen, starting with a seagull attacking and injuring Melanie. Things get weirder and weirder as time goes on, resulting in the climax in which hordes of birds of many species start launching coordinated assaults on the people of Bodega Bay.
As can be expected in a Hitchcock film, the casting of this film is absolutely superb. Tippi Hedren, who plays Melanie, and Rod Taylor, who plays Mitch both do stupendous jobs. Mitch’s clingy mother, played by Jessica Tandy also gives a stupendous job. The shooting of this film is equally stupendous as always. There are so many great shots in this film, too many to count, and too many to list off. One of the most striking, however, is the first character who gets killed by the Birds. We are shown a man sitting down, with both of his eyes pecked out. The film then cuts to a closer look at him, then again to an even closer look at his eyes. It’s a very striking scene, and really sends a message to the viewers that these birds are dangerous. Another great scene is the scene from above showing the town from the perspective of the birds. Another striking part of this film is the sound. There is nearly no music in the film at all – the only music being a short number by the schoolchildren. This really gives a sense of isolation and almost paranoia. The film also does a great job with sound direction. It makes great use of the sounds of bird calls and the sound of flapping wings to really create tension and fear.
What this film does really well, however is the emphasis on the psychological aspect of the film. The truly key scene of the film is the Diner scene, just after the first major attack, and before the start of mass panic. You have Melanie telling people about the attack, and a bird expert telling people there is no danger. Slowly, but surely the people start to realize the danger, and start panicking. Then the attack comes, and after 10 minutes of action, we are returned to the diner, where we see everyone crying, the selfsame bird expert is cowering in the corner. Another great aspect of this film is the exposition. The film does a great job of building momentum. The action doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the film, and those first 40 minutes are a story in of itself, which really gives you a chance to get to know and like all of the characters, giving the rest of the film meaning.
This is truly a great film. Although the birds are cheesy, and the action scenes are all very silly and cheesy, and the effects are quite stupid, the film is effective. The horror is there, the film is frightening. This film is on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly for it’s cultural impact. As I said before, this was the only Hitchcock film I knew of before I saw North by Northwest in High School. This film, not Vertigo, not Psycho, but this one. Second, the film is on the list for its investigation into how people respond to paranoia and hysteria. Thirdly, this film is on the list for Hitchcock, and his filmmaking ability. This movie took something as innocent as a bird, and created a terrifying monster. This film is a testament to the power and skill Hitchcock has in creating tension and horror. This man is truly the master of thrills.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

#14 Psycho (1960)

"Hitchcock is a freaking genius"

In the long list of movies that have had a profound impact on cinema, Psycho ranks among the greatest. So much of this film has become horror and thriller staple. And yet, at the same time, so much of this film is absolutely unique, and singularly great. This is an absolutely stupendous film. Everything is so thoroughly perfect and unique, that even a director copying the film line for line and shot for shot cannot compare to its quality. It is, simply, a perfect thriller.

As before, this film is so chockfull of unexpected twists, that I’m going to leave my synopsis minimal for fear of revealing so of the superb twists in this film. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is an ordinary divorcée living in Phoenix, AZ. She has an ordinary job at a real estate firm, and has an ordinary relationship with a man who comes down from California to visit her, but this all changes, however, when a particularly wealthy man buys a house with 40,000 dollars cash. Marion is sent off to deposit the money in the bank, but she instead decides to take the money and split. She decides to take the money to her boyfriend, as it’s revealed they plan to get married once the boyfriend’s debts are paid off. All the while, she becomes increasingly paranoid, and seems to be slipping into insanity throughout the trip. One night while she’s driving through California, it becomes so stormy that she’s forced to pull off into a hotel for the night. The one she chooses is the Bates Motel, a run-down motel off the main road, which is completely unoccupied except for the owner, a creepy man named Norman, and his ailing, insane mother. The rest of the movie is about what goes down between Marion and Norman, and its aftermath, neither of which I want to spoil, because they blindside you to such an extent that to give it away would ruin the movie entirely.

The acting in this movie is quite solid. Marion is solid, but the real show-
stealer is Norman, who plays his role absolutely superbly. He has so many great lines, you can just feel your skin crawling when he’s talking. The more amazing part of this film is the camera work. The camera feels like another character unto itself. Among the best scenes in the film are the shower scene, which is so incredible, I am at a loss for words just thinking about it. Another great one is after the shower scene when the film is showing Marion’s body, and panning around the newspaper containing the money, or another scene when the PI attempts to confront Norman’s mother. Hitchcock does such a good job building suspense, every scene is a nailbiter. The climactic end scene is just absolutely intense, and your hair is on end even at the end when everything has been resolved. Additionally, the music is excellent. It’s become such a part of our culture and the stereotypical slasher that you don’t even realize how well it goes to the film, but it does, and as with the rest of the film, builds suspense incredibly well.

So much of this film is so good. It is without a doubt one of the top 5 films I’ve ever seen, and the best suspense film I’ve seen yet. There is so much the film does well, and what I find more incredible is the film does it all without gore, without blood, without violence. None of the characters are hideous or grotesque. This film is a great example of showing just enough to get your imagination going, but leaving enough out to let your imagination run rampant. The suspense building is superb. And every one of the three MAJOR twists are pulled off so flawlessly, and blindside you so completely that your mouth is left agape at it. This film is a must watch. By the end of it, I guarantee you all you will be able to say is, “Hitchcock is a freaking genius.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

#13 Vertigo (1958)

"A Well Executed Thriller"

This week shall be Hitchcock week as I review three absolutely classic Hitchcock films: Psycho, The Birds, and of course, this one, Vertigo. I had never seen a Hitchcock film before this one, and I really wish I had seen them earlier. These films are absolutely incredible. The stories are excellent, the characters are engaging and multifaceted, and the twists are just oh so good. Vertigo really exemplifies all of these points. It also certainly doesn’t hurt that the movie takes place primarily in San Francisco, and I’m a sucker for films set in SF.

The story centers on John “Scottie” Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart (who you may also remember from “It’s A Wonderful Life”). Ferguson recently was chasing a criminal when he nearly fell to his death. This gave him a serious bout of Vertigo, and because of this, he decided to retire from the police force. He’s pulled back into work, however, when a man asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), who has been acting very strangely. This is the essential action of the story, and I’d go further into it, but the plot is very complicated, and any effort to explain it on my part would not do it proper service (and might give away some very good twists, to boot). But needless to say, the plot is very cool, and some of the twists in the film are just absolutely amazing, and will totally blindside you.

The acting in this film is also very good. I am a big fan of Jimmy Stewart, and I thought he did a very good job with this role. He acts a lot like the character he played in Wonderful Life, but it still feels completely unique and engaging. Novak, the leading lady, does a very good job as well. More important to this film is the camera work, and Hitchcock is a true master of the camera. Hitchcock’s game is subtlety. You can’t watch this film passively; there are so many subtle clues leading up to the finale, the big reveal of what’s been going on in the film the whole time, and, as with Citizen Kane, you find yourself exclaiming “Oh!” about a hundred times. As a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, I found this extremely cool, and was into it the whole time. What I think makes this work even more is how little the film seems to progress through the middle. The film (or Ferguson) seems to get sidetracked a lot, and you find yourself asking where the film is going. The aptness with which all these seemingly unconnected lines are tied up at the end makes the film all the better.

I loved the setting of the film too. Being a resident of the Bay Area, I may be a little biased, but I thought San Francisco (and San Juan Batista) were such excellent places to shoot this film. The views are awe-inspiring. The shot where Ferguson and Elster are situated underneath the Golden Gate Bridge absolutely made my jaw drop. This is a little detracting of the film at the same time if you’re from the area, however, there are many cases in the film where the location jumps around, or the characters aren’t where they say they are, and a local will be able to point it out in a second, but it still works just as well.

All in all, this is a very well executed film. Why is it on the list? Simple, it’s a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is one of those legendary, titanic, filmmakers, similar to Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick, whose films simply cannot be left out of lists like these. Moreover, this film is a showcase for the thriller genre, and generally on top ten or top 15 lists today, despite its mediocre reception upon its release. The film does a good job of leading you in one direction, and completely blindsiding you with the reveal. Basically this movie is awesome, and I’m going to stop attempting to (and failing at) sum up the words to express how cool this film is, and leave you with one command: “watch this film”.

Friday, May 14, 2010

#12 The Matrix (1999)

"An action film that has defined a generation"

The Matrix is one of those movies that has really come to define not just a genre, but a generation. With its cool visual effects, exhilarating action sequences, and awesome kung-fu, it has raced through the imaginations of every teenager and young adult since it first premiered in 1999. I remember watching this movie when I was 9 years old when it was fresh out of the theatres – it was the first movie I saw on DVD, and was the first movie I watched in surround sound. At that time I didn’t really understand what was going on in the film, but thought the kung-fu scenes were pretty awesome. This was my first time seeing the original Matrix all the way through since I first saw it those 10 years ago, and now it feels like I’m seeing a completely different movie. I appreciate the action films all the more now (especially now seeing its impact on the whole action genre), but can also appreciate the story and the philosophical aspects of the film.

The movie opens with a stream of green numbers and a female voice in the background. She’s making a phone call, and is talking about a guy. Suddenly she realizes that the phone is being traced. It’s too late, however, as the cops are already at her door, and she is brought into custody. We are then taken outside the building, where the police chief is talking to what would appear to be some FBI agents. They tell the chief that, because he went in too early, the woman will escape. Suddenly we are taken back to the lady, who, through some dazzling kung-fu moves, manages to fight off her captors, and breaks off running. We follow her through one very cool chase scene, ending with her answering a phonebooth, and getting sucked into the phone, just avoiding getting run over by one of the FBI agents, who was pursuing her with a garbage truck. How’s that for an opening?

The film then introduces us to the main character, Neo, who is played by Keanu Reeves. Neo is a computer programmer by day and devious hacker by night. Eventually he gets caught, and is brought into questioning by the same FBI agents we saw earlier in the film. Weird stuff happens, resulting in them putting a bug in his stomach. Neo then wakes up, implying it was all a dream. Later that day he meets up with a reputable hacker named Morpheus. Morpheus tells him that everything is a lie, leading to one of the most famous parts of the film, where Morpheus gives him a choice between two pills – a blue pill, which will return him to his ordinary life, or a red pill, which will allow him to continue to find the truth. Neo obviously takes the red pill, and Neo is shown the truth about life. The truth is that life is an illusion. Humans created AI in the early 21st century, and after an inevitable robots vs humans war, the robots ended up winning, and enslaving the human race to feed off their body heat as energy. The world we live in is a virtual reality to prevent the humans from resisting, and this virtual reality is called the Matrix. A number of humans have managed to escape the Matrix thanks to the efforts of a man everyone calls “The One”, and these humans have settled down in an underground city called Zion. From here, freed humans can hack into the Matrix to find and release people from its grip.
The main plot of this movie is that Morpheus believes Neo to be the second coming (possibly because his name is an anigram of one?), and Morpheus takes it upon himself to unlock Neo’s potential; It is revealed that The One is capable of bending, or even outright breaking the rules of the Matrix (physics, gravity, etc.). During this process, one of the freed humans betrays Morpheus to a group of programs, called “Agents”, whose job it is to uncover and destroy any freed humans trying to hack into the Matrix (These are the FBI agents we saw earlier in the movie). These Agents are super powerful, and can do cool things such as dodging bullets and punching through walls. The Agents capture Morpheus, and it is up to Neo and Trinity (the woman from the beginning of the movie) to rescue Morpheus. There’s much more to this movie, and if I tried to explain it all, it would take way too long, but I think I get the idea across.

The acting in this movie is ok. Keanu Reeves gives off the kind of performance you would expect from Keanu Reeves (bland and boring are the words I would use). I found the performance of his love interest, Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) to be equally uninspiring. The real show stealers in this film are Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), whose performance in this film is just legendary, and the primary antagonist in this film, Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving). The direction in this film is very good, and the cinematography is incredible. There are so many cool shots in this film. One of my favorites is when Morpheus is offering the pills to Neo. It is done through the reflection of his pince-nez sunglasses, which show the red pill in one lens, and the blue pill in the other. The special effects in this film are just awesome. This is the film that truly popularized “bullet time”, and has many cool explosions. The depiction of the robots is also quite well done.

The action sequences in this movie are also well done, and downright riveting. One thing I particularly like about the hand to hand sequences is, rather than doing the traditional Hollywood thing and just showing the actor’s faces, this movie keeps the camera back, and shows the audience the full picture, truly highlighting the well-choreographed scenes. While doing this, however, the film still keeps us close to the characters. The stories of the characters are engaging, and you will find yourself emotionally attached to the characters, making it really exciting when Neo triumphs in the end.

Overall this film is well done. While I had problems with some parts of this film, namely the bland acting from the 2 most important characters, and several auxiliary ones, overdone shots (I dug the slo-mo, but they did it way too much), the film has really come to define the action genre, and this is why the film is on the list, primarily. So many things this movie popularized – bullet time, slow motion scenes, running off walls – have come to be action film clichés. This movie has really defined a genre. Another case can be made, I think, for the philosophical aspects of this film. The film goes the way of Blade Runner in that it asks the question, “how do you know you and what you see are real?”, and goes to explain a lot of supernatural phenomena. Although you might shrug it off after the movie is over, it really is a question that stays with you. The film is also interesting in how it plays with fate and faith, which come to be huge parts of the film. Overall, this film has excellent action sequences, and plenty of killing, but at the same time it asks some very probing questions that leave you asking questions, which is very rare in action films.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

#11 Blade Runner (1982)

"An exquisite marrying of new and old"

The second in this our week of sci-fi films depicting dystopian futures is the 1982 film Blade Runner. This film stars Harrison Ford, which should already set off some bells. This is one of those films that I had heard of, but never really felt like I had seen. In fact, I would not be reviewing this film now if it hadn’t been brought to my attention in my film class a few weeks ago. The ironic thing is, that after the first 5 minutes, I realized that not only had I seen the film before, but I had seen it several times over. Looking at it now seriously, critically ,and analytically, I found it to be excellent. In full, it is a superb combination of film noir, those hard boiled cop films of the 40s and, the rapidly emerging film genre of science fiction.

The film takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2019, and scientists have developed a robot, called a replicant, that looks and acts exactly like a human, except that the robot stronger, faster and smarter. Fear of these creatures has caused them to be banned on planet Earth. To enforce this ban, a new force was created, a force whose job it was to hunt and destroy any replicants hiding out on Earth. This force is called The Blade Runners. The viewer is sent to Los Angeles, which we discover is now a slummy wasteland, inhabited solely by those humans too poor to afford a trip to Earth’s now numerous off-world colonies. Harrison Ford is one of these humans, and was once a Blade Runner, before quitting due to psychological trauma. Ford is brought back onto the force after four replicants killed a number of people, including a veteran blade runner, and were now running rampant in the streets of Los Angeles. The rest of the film plays out like a detective film, as Ford investigates crime scenes, examines evidence, and hunts the four robot killers.

I found the acting in this film to be quite good. Harrison Ford plays a character that seems to be quite a lot like Han Solo from Star Wars. He’s smarmy and smooth talking, but ultimately knows how to get the job done. I thought the actors who played the robots also did a good job. You could really sense that they were humanoid, but ultimately lacked the emotions that set humans apart from replicants – one of the few cases in which I would say forced, or seemingly forced lines actually work very well. The directing is good, but the shots I didn’t find to be particularly striking.

This film is really interesting because it takes the character driven aspects of the hardboiled detective film noir of the 40s, and combines it with the serious science fiction films that had begun to pop up in the 70s, with Star Wars and Alien. The film feels grimy, and the character development is incredible. The characters feel so real; you even become attached to the robots. The science fiction is really quite nice as well. Though the movie never really goes into the details of what happened, the scenes of Los Angeles are very striking. The people speak a dialect that Ford in the movie describes as, “a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” The feeling of dystopia is ever present, and you constantly find yourself wanting to know what happened.

The other thing I really liked about this film, is that Ford’s character is weak. He is always overpowered by the replicants, even the female ones. He has to rely on his own wits and ingenuity to survive, and every one of them is an ordeal. This is primarily because the film isn’t about the action, it’s not about cool action scenes, it’s about the emotions and motivations of the characters during the fight. This is truly proven in the ending scene of the film, which, as always, I will not give away. But trust me when I say, you’ll walk away scratching your head a little bit.

This film is on the list for a number of reasons. First is its cultural impact. I know I seem to be saying this with every film, but this one had some serious cultural impact on the sci-fi genre. A lot of aspects of this film are imitated a lot in sci-fi afterwards. It also asks a lot of interesting questions, such as what constitutes a human being, and how do we know we and our memories are real (the film actually goes so far as to put the famous Descartes quote “I think therefore I am” into the film).” Finally, this film is on the list for its excellent marrying of old and new. It combines film noir and sci-fi so well. While it certainly didn’t spark a genre or a trend to the best of my knowledge, it certainly perpetuated them. This is truly an excellent film, and if you love detective films, or sci-fi (I happen to love both), then this is certainly a great film to see.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Metropolis (1927)

"A biting critique of economic systems"

The movie Metropolis today would not seem at all remarkable. With science fiction and apocalyptic films selling at a dime a dozen nowadays, you would expect most people to shrug off the idea of a science fiction silent film from the late twenties. 5 years ago, I would have been one of those people. I used to absolutely despise silent film, but no longer. Metropolis is the first silent film I’ve seen to completion, and I loved it. The film is an incredible piece of criticism, with amazing scope and depth, and the special effects, for their time, are astounding.
The story of the film is amazing. It takes place in the distant future in a massive city called Metropolis. The city is socially divided. The workers, the vast majority of the city’s population work beneath the surface of the city, and live in houses below the machines. This is the entirety of the lives of the workers, they seldom even see the light of day. The small upper crust, meanwhile, lives above the city, enjoying the pure essence of luxury and recreation. The story revolves around one man, Freder Frederson, who is the son of the head and designer of Metropolis. He is schmoozing with his fellow upper class citizens, when he lays eyes on Maria, a simple worker’s daughter. Naturally he falls instantly in love with her, and chases her into the machine rooms. In these rooms, he comes face to face with the part of society he was largely kept sheltered from, when there is an accident at the factory and many workers are killed before his eyes. Confused, he confronts his father, who brushes the accidents off as “unavoidable”. Depressed and confused, he sneaks into the undercity where he experiences a day in the life of a worker. At the end of the day, he travels with the rest of the workers to listen to a woman who is a sort of prophet for the workers. This woman turns out to be none other than Maria. She urges the workers to be peaceful, and patient until a messiah-type figure – which she calls the mediator – can solve relations between the workers and the planners. After the workers clear out, Freder asks Maria for her hand in marriage, and she agrees.
Meanwhile, the inventor Rotwang tells Freder’s father, John of his latest invention – a robot that never grows tired, and can take the place of any human. The two then go to the undercity and listen in on Maria’s speech to the masses. He tells Rotwang to kidnap Maria, and make the robot take her as its form, and then send the robot down to encourage the masses to violence. The plan works, and the workers descend on the factories, and break all of the machines, in the process flooding their own houses. Mara meanwhile manages to escape Rotwang, and she and Freder go to the undercity and save the wives and children of the workers. The rest of the movie is about Freder and Maria trying to assuage the masses, and there is more to the film, but giving it away would defeat the purpose of watching the film.
This was the first silent film I’d ever seen, so I’ll give my thoughts on silent film. One thing I really like about silent film is the acting. In today’s film, actors are usually rated based on their ability to deliver lines, and their accent. Silent film doesn’t have this luxury, so acting is more about emoting. I really like this aspect. Silent film is all about saying everything without saying anything at all, and I find this really cool. In addition to this, Silent Film carries another aspect of theatre over to film, that of makeup. This film has stage costume and makeup, which I find to be really cool. It feels like I’m at a play, but I’m watching from the comfort of my own home. The thing I didn’t like about the film was the music. The music itself was incredible, but the problem was that it often doesn’t fit into the mood of the scene. Often you’d get some totally tragic scene, with highly upbeat music. For all I know, this could have been intentional, as part of the larger critique, but I found it a little unnerving.
The depth of the film was incredible. I found the most fascinating scenes of the movie to be the large shots showing the whole city. They are absolutely spectacular, and truly convey the true scope of the city. Additionally, the special effects were incredible. The scenes with the robot, and with the electricity were incredible. The coolest scene of all was when Rotwang was giving the Robot Maria’s form. It really makes you forget this film was shot in 1927. Another great thing about this movie was the cinematography. There are so many incredible shots in this film. From the very beginning, with the masses of workers, dressed in black, marching in lock-step, heads bowed into the elevator to go to work, while another similar group leaves another elevator, to the very end with large scenes of the worker mobs rushing into the bourgeois planners, the whole film just exudes modern day blockbuster.
This film is on the list for a number of reasons. This film is really one of the earliest science fiction films ever. The scope of this film, as I have said, is incredible. It’s as well thought out as any of today’s intricate sci-fi flicks (two of which will be covered this week). This film is on the list for its biting critique of capitalist ideology. John Frederson is the epitome of Robber Barons. He’s Rockefeller, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie all put into one. His whole character in the first part of the movie is evoked through the scene early in the movie when Freder confronts John about the accident. But the film also condemns Marxist revolutionary tendencies. The ultimate theme of the film is peaceful cooperation, and agreement. In a world where “Marxist”, “Communist”, and “Socialist”, are still big buzzer words in today’s political world, this movie is still relevant, and its total timelessness is what makes this a must see for any lover of film.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street

The final in our week of horror is the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is one of those seminal horror franchises. Similar to the Exorcist and The Shining, this movie sparked a large array of techniques and styles that have come to be horror film clichés. As with the other two, this is an extremely effective horror film. Not only does it feature a very young Johnny Depp, and an absolutely stupendous villain, but it also is very effective at playing mind games with the viewer, tricking you into feeling ease, and then unleashing a fright designed to get you to jump.
The story of this film is something most people are familiar with. It opens in a boiler room, where a hot blondie is running from a disfigured man with knives for hands. Just as the killer closes in, the girl is woken up. The film then cuts to the girl recounting her adventure to her friends. She tells them she’s frightened, and asks them to stay with her. In the middle of the night, the girl’s goofball boyfriend shows up, and they have sex, leaving her friends to their own devices. Later everyone falls asleep, and the girl wakes up and goes outside, where she meets the villain again. She makes a run for it, but the villain catches up and just as she’s about to get gored, the scene cuts back to the room, where it turns out that she’s been dreaming again. But she doesn’t wake up, and out of nowhere, the girl’s gut gets ripped open, and she is torn to shreds by nothing. The next day, blondie’s best friend, Nancy Thompson, begins to have similar dreams. For the rest of the film, Nancy has to fight sleep deprivation and insanity while she tries to find a way to fight the villain.
Personally I didn’t think the film was particularly well acted, with the sole exception of Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger, the villain. The rest of it just feels like cheesy 80s acting. However the director of the film, Wes Craven, who also did the Scream films and The Hills Have Eyes, does a great job. The film features many clichés, and it was hard for me to tell if they were his own design and made them into clichés, or if he was just copying them. Either way, he does a good job with them. The shots, were artfully done, and created a lot of suspense. A favorite of mine was the use of shaky cam in the first kill of the movie.
The movie also does a very good job with sound direction. It’s interesting, because throughout the film, you actually don’t see very much of Freddy. Most of his presence is done through sound, and I love it. Scenes where Nancy is looking for Freddy, and all you hear is the scraping sound of his knives, or his distinctive chuckle. It works extremely well, and every time you hear it, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
The film also does a really good job blurring the lines between dreams and reality. The film doesn’t really show the character go to sleep. Often times the film will show a character for several minutes before you realize it’s a dream, and really adds to the feeling of paranoia in the film, as you start to fall into the idea that awake=safe and sleep=danger. It also plays with dreams within dreams which is a big part of the ending. The ending is also very strange. I won’t give the ending away, but all I’ll say is it is very confusing, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. I guess it’s just another thing that makes this film so good.
All in all, this film is just an effective horror film. What does that mean? Well, if the last week has shown us anything, it’s that an effective horror film makes a good use of suspense. Horror isn’t about gore or violence, or big scary monsters. Horror needs two things to be truly scary. Those are a sense of the unknown, and some connection to reality. Every film this week has done this. The films are well aware of this, and use the sense of the unknown to build suspense to a thrilling climax. I used to shrug off horror, even avoid it, but I’m really coming to appreciate it as a genre, and am really looking forward to the next horror week, which should be coming soon!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The Shining is one of those quintessential movies. So many things from this movie are referenced, quoted, or even outright copied. This is largely because it is an exceedingly successful horror film. Its ability to build suspense is such that, before bad things even start happening, you are utterly terrified. This film is a wonderful piece of horror, and certainly one of my most favorite movies of all time.
The story of this film is very interesting. Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson is an unsuccessful writer who is traveling to the Overlook Hotel, deep in the Colorado mountains for a job interview – he is going to be the caretaker for the Hotel during the winter. During the interview, it is revealed that weird things have happened to caretakers, who are driven insane by the solitude. The previous caretaker hacked his wife and two kids to pieces, and then killed himself. The film then cuts to Jack’s family, who are having breakfast. Later on it’s revealed that the son, Danny, has some form of ESP, and tells the future through the use of an alter ego, who he calls Tony (he describes him of as the little man who lives in his mouth). Tony sends various images to Danny, telling him that “the blood goes to the hotel”, causing him to pass out. A doctor is called, and it’s revealed during the checkup that Jack was an alcoholic, but had recently given up the stuff, and there had been cases of abuse in the family. The family then travels to the hotel, and are given a tour of the place, Danny meets a cook who has similar powers to him (which the man calls “the shining”). The man feigns ignorance, but gives the sense that the hotel is very dangerous. The family is eventually left alone, and, after a month of nothing, things begin to get weird. Jack begins to get touchy, and is easily irritated. Meanwhile, Danny starts seeing strange things, such as two twin girls, and rivers of blood flowing through the hotel. Eventually, Jack begins going insane, and, by the end, takes an axe and starts actively trying to kill his family, egged on by hallucinations he begins interacting with.
This film is stupendously acted. Jack Nicholson gives an absolutely amazing performance. He plays insanity incredibly well, and his lines are very well delivered. This film also features great performances from the mother and the son. The directing is also very good. Stanley Kubrick does an excellent job, and features many great shots. The film has a lot of still shots, and one of the most incredible things the film does is to contrast a lot of still, serene shots with behind the back shots with a lot of movement. The most memorable of these is the contrast of Jack sitting quietly in his study writing, with the over the shoulder shot of Danny riding his tricycle through the halls. This is extremely disorienting, and creates a lot of tension which builds nicely throughout the film to the climax, which is one of the most memorable in film. Another very famous scene is when Jack takes an axe, and begins battering down a door. When a hole gets cut into the door, Jack sticks his face in, and yells, “Here’s Johnny!”, which is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film.
Another thing I particularly like about this film is the mother, Wendy, who is played by Shelly Duvall. She plays a good and very intelligent survivor in this film, and is unusually “genre savvy” for a horror film. This is best exemplified during the climactic axe scene, where Jack has cut a hole in the door. He reaches his hand in to open the door from the inside, and Wendy grabs a knife and stabs his hand. The other thing I like about this film is the ambiguities. Throughout the film, it’s hard to say whether Jack’s insanity is through some supernatural force which possesses him, or whether it’s cabin fever and solitude. Even to the end the film isn’t exactly definitive.
This film is on the list because of its effect on culture and the horror genre. There are so many things in this film which are referenced constantly in popular culture. For example, the twin girls in dresses holding hands, the tricycle scene, REDRUM, “Here’s Johnny” (which itself is a reference to the Johnny Carson show). When I watched this film I was really quite surprised how many things in this film I had seen elsewhere. The pervasiveness of this film in pop culture is really striking. Moreover, this film is a great example of what horror should be. The film sets the exposition very well, and builds anticipation, and anxiety really well to a point at which, when Nicholson finally does get the axe, you are ready to jump out of your chair. The thing I like about this film is, while there is blood, there really isn’t a whole lot of gore. One person dies in the whole film. It’s just further proof that for a film to be scary, you don’t need explicit scenes of arms being pulled off, and people being disemboweled.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist is a movie which has evoked the fears of every child and young adult (and even some adults) for the past nearly 40 years now. My dad often told me that this movie is one of the few to truly scare the crap out of him. The description of the movie on Netflix says something to the extent that if you aren’t scared by this movie, then there is something wrong with you mentally. What’s my point? My point is that this movie has become such a cultural icon, its scenes, lines, and actions are well known to just about every American (I mean, who hasn’t heard of the projectile vomit, or the head spin thing?). The Exorcist is a cultural icon, and moreover, a highly effective horror film.

The plot of this film is extremely simple. A single mother actress is raising her daughter when suddenly the daughter begins to exhibit strange symptoms. After being paraded through a series of doctors, whose treatments are each more irrational than the last, it’s revealed that the girl has been possessed by a demon. It is up to an unsure (almost unreligious) Catholic priest, along with another, more experienced exorcist priest to save the girl from the demon who possesses her. That’s the story. In reality, however, it’s a series of cool shots, each getting more outrageous than the last. It starts with the bed shaking, to the girl turning a shade of green, screaming profanities, spinning her head around, and spitting vomit on people.

What this movie really does well is build suspense. This is one of those films where you really know what’s coming. It’s right there in the title, and the filmmaker is well aware of this. The whole film just screws with you. From the very beginning, with a shot (which at the time seems totally unrelated) of an Indiana Jones type character in the middle of the desert, the whole movie the audience is waiting for weird things to start happening, and by the time they do start happening, nearly an hour into the film, you are ready to urinate on yourself in anticipation. Personally, I did not find this film particularly scary. I attribute this more to an ability to separate myself from a connection with the character, and the fact that I find psychotic characters like the possessed girl to be absolutely hilarious (you’ll find more of this when I talk about The Shining on Wednesday), than any sort of comment on the quality of the film. I did find it very suspenseful, and the end scene is absolutely well done and exciting. The acting of this film is stupendous. The show stealer was definitely Linda Blair, who gives an absolutely jaw dropping performance as the girl/demon. Max von Sydow, who plays The Exorcist also gives a rather memorable performance, with the memorable line being, of course, “The Power of Christ Compels You!”. One aspect of this film I really like, is its focus on a particular item. This is done similarly to Dirty Harry. In Dirty Harry, Eastwood carries around a Six Shooter, so at the end you find yourself counting his shots, similarly in The Exorcist, the demon is not unleashing havoc because she is strapped down, so by the time you reach the actual exorcism, you find yourself keeping an eye on the straps. Another thing I like about this film is its emphasis on the supernatural. The movie states that there are some things which science simply cannot explain. I absolutely love the scenes where the girl is being consistently barraged by a slew of doctors, and in the end, the answer turns out to be a simple priest.

This film is an absolute masterpiece. Through its camerawork, superb writing, and excellent performances, the film deals out a great amount of suspense. The other great part of this film is how far it goes. The film features a very young girl spewing all manner of profanities, and all manner of lewd acts, the most notable of which being the girl impaling her vagina with a crucifix, and then forcing her mother to drink the blood from it. The other thing I find particularly interesting is that the film achieves a believably horrifying monster, without it being particularly imposing, nor impressive. Sure, it spews vomit, but it never inflicts serious harm on anybody (well, not exactly), and yet the demon is absolutely terrifying, and has been the subject of nightmares for thousands of people. The film is on the list for the suspense, and for its cultural pervasiveness. There are so many things in this film that are copied by so many people. I still remember watching the cartoon “Courage the Cowardly Dog Show” parody this film, and never quite understanding it (but still knowing what it was from). All in all, this film is a must see, but don’t bother coming if you have a weak stomach (also, if you can’t tell yet, definitely not a film for the kiddies). My final piece of advice, as with any horror film, is to not bring along someone whose seen the film before. The suspense and mystery will always get to be such that you cannot resist asking your fried questions pertinent to the plot, and it will always ruin it for you at least a little bit.