Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
In a Nutshell: The caretakers of an isolated hotel are terrorized by an evil presence.

Stanley Kubrick is typically (or in my experience) one of the first directors that burgeoning film students gravitate towards. And why not? He’s fairly modern, has a very consistent theme of dehumanization (that many seem to respond to) and has experimented in a wide variety of genres (sci-fi, horror, war, comedy, historical epic, family drama). Though since many people believe that filmmaking begins and ends with Mr. Kubrick, I find myself to be too critical of his work, which is unfair. Even his worst work is uncompromising, tightly directed and contains at least three or four iconic scenes. Of his entire filmography, The Shining would be in the bottom half, but still deserves its classic status.

Unlike most modern horror movies that pile on cheap shocks and gore, The Shining runs on a looming dread and a menacing atmosphere. The scenery takes on a life of its own, courtesy of Kubrick’s expansive framing, with shots that continually track the Torrance family (on par with the hotel’s portrayal as an omnipresent entity). Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance deviated a lot from Stephen King’s character, and rather than succumbing to cabin fever from his own alcoholic weaknesses, was instead a murderous psychopath all along. It is understandable why King and King fans would be upset at this change; Jack’s progression from family man to murderer feels less organic and more expected. It lessens the shock, but to judge the movie on its own terms, that Jack’s murderous tendencies were always there, then the film’s build to the rampage is as ominous as inevitability can be.

One element of the film that was unjustly criticized was Shelley Duvall as Jack’s wife Wendy. Duvall is out of her comfort zone in The Shining; her most frequent collaborator was Robert Altman whose freewheeling directing style could not be anymore different than Kubrick’s. Plus, King’s Wendy was also a different character, this time a more self-reliant and stronger woman. Duvall’s main acting challenge is to be flighty and hysterical, and Duvall is effective. It is hardly her fault the material has her do little more than wail, shriek and be bullied by Jack for half of the movie. Audiences and critics were also decisive of the film’s enigmatic qualities. Not much is explained about the hotel’s need to have Jack a murderer and several scenes that were explained thoroughly in the novel come off as non-sequiturs. There is no doubt this was deliberate, and it does show Kubrick’s faith in his audience to either form our own interpretation or take every mysterious occurrence at face value. Perhaps its instance on not explaining everything is exactly what makes it so enduring, so inexplicably horrifying. It manages a sinister mood that few have been able to replicate making The Shining a horror classic and that still beats the hell out of today’s horror flicks.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Directed by John Cassavetes.
Starring Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands.
In a Nutshell: A housewife’s mental illness threatens her family’s welfare.

Plenty of movies out there, devoid of any violent or sexually graphic content (unlike Man Bites Dog), that make me extremely uncomfortable. A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes’ mediation on the struggle to maintain marital serenity, is one of those movies. The woman in question, Gena Rowlands as homemaker Mabel Longhetti, is a victim of trying too hard to please her husband, Nick (Peter Falk, at his most un-Columbo). She’s too eager to please at social functions, laughs too loud and too long, cries with a misplaced passion and generally gives off an uncomfortable vibe. But she’s never this way because she wants to be; she only wants to please her affable, if a tad loutish husband who she loves dearly. She is a victim of society’s pigeonholing and can never cram her psyche into the traditional housewife role. It does not take long for Nick to get fed up with her manic behavior and ends up sending her to a mental institution. It is then that Nick becomes an even worse caretaker, exploding with anger and sharing beers with his kids at the beach. He too feels the strain of being shoved into society’s trapping as assured and always in control.

When I say the film made me uneasy is no knock on its quality. But two and a half hours of yelling and dissolving marriage is just exhausting. But the movie does showcase Cassavetes’ strength as an actor’s director. Gena Rowlands gives a forcefully high-strung performance as Mabel, giving her eccentricity and irritating tics a sad, personal touch. Her inability to realize herself in her suffocating, suburban world begins shattering her psyche, and Rowlands can channel rage, desperation and faux joy in one look like no other. Peter Falk’s Nick is just as dysfunctional and well-meaning, relying mostly on violence and excessive shouting to restore order. But his outbursts are of the same nature as Mabel’s; an attempt to reinforce a notion of tradition that plagues American households.

Cassavetes has presented a searing, though overdone look at the American family. It’s overdone only in the sense that no real people could sustain the amount of dysfunctional energy that Nick and Mabel can. Or at least I hope not. But both characters are so well developed that the film could run on its own spontaneity and the lead performances boldly dive into the abyss that has defined Nick and Mabel’s lives. It’s as touching as it is nauseating to watch these two wrestle with their societal roles as their sanity is threatened. Both mean well, but the influence of our position in this culture can drive any well-meaning individual to madness. In the end, as painful as it was to watch, A Woman Under the Influence expertly defines the struggle between who we are and who we should be.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Directed by Elia Kazan.
Starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando.
In a Nutshell: A Southern belle clashes with her family and descends into insanity.

A lot has been written over the years about Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. There have been morally unsound characters in movies long before Stanley, but they have all been played with reservation and restraint. But Brando brought the Method-style in full focus with Stanley; drinking, hitting, yelling, and never backing down from his character’s irredeemable qualities. He doesn’t submit to a simian cartoon (despite what many of the film’s characters would say) but instead expresses his anguish as a man who cannot think to summon such dimensions. It is hardly hyperbole to say that screen acting today would be quite different were it not for Brando’s fearless commitment to Stanley.

But for all of Brando’s acting revolutionizing, the film still belongs to Vivien Leigh as the unglued Blanche Dubois. She’s painted to be just as likeable a protagonist as Stanley, but Leigh’s performance is one of great tragedy as the audience waits for her downfall to arrive. She’s as brittle as a dry twig but her constant attempts at reclaiming a normal life (or deluding all around her that she can) are heavy lifting for an actress. Her tailspin to insanity, laced with homophobic jeers, nymphomania and possible cradle robbing (much of which was restored in the latest, uncut version), is hypnotic and achingly poignant in Leigh’s hands. Particularly her scene where she tries to seduce a young paperboy, her voice barely hiding the sexual longing in her sad life. It straddles a line between depressing and tawdry, but Leigh never buries Blanche’s inner turmoil.

The current DVD release presents the film uncensored leaving in the extended rape scene and scenes that sexualized Stella, Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife (Kim Hunter). The original cut gave little understanding as to what would attract her to such a brute and keep the marriage held together. It cheapened her character for audiences, but is now presented as a fully fleshed out figure (despite all the abuse she suffers from Stanley). The sexuality between the characters heightens through the constant manipulation and doesn’t devalue the tension with too much bedroom dealing. It keeps the heat in Blanche and Stanley’s battle as sweltering now as it did in 1951. The film continues to remain an engrossing insight into adult sexuality and as enduring as Brando’s raw passion.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Directed by Wojciech Has.
Starring Zbigniew Cybulski and Iga CembrzyƄska.
In a Nutshell: An old book tells folded tale after tale of a soldier’s grandfather.

I think I can safely say that Saragossa Manuscript is one of the densest, twisted, more convolutedly plotted movies I have ever seen. Perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more movies, but this one will be tough to beat. Saragossa Manuscript (which was adapted from a novel by Jan Potocki) begins as a soldier reading a tale about his grandfather, Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) being lured by two princesses who want to marry him. Instantly, he is brutally awakened from this vision and the movie soon follows a path of intertwining stories all ended with the reoccurring gag of the characters being sucked right out of them in a jolting manner. Many of the stories connect or undermine others, but one will need a spreadsheet to keep track of how all the characters and stories connect.

With the movie’s three-hour length (courtesy of fan Jerry Garcia who fought for an American release of the original cut), there is a problem of it lost in its own labyrinth. I have been told that I seem to have a problem with enjoying movies on a basic level (e.g. Transformers), and one would suppose that to enjoy this movie, you just have to let it take you for ride. For all the complexity, it always seems to be grinning at the audience; nothing is ever weighted down by melodrama. The actors seem to know this and never add an ounce of gravity to the performances. The directing is more theater, and less cinematic eschewing any sort of grandeur in the scenery. And the offbeat pacing from story to story only adds to the drug-trip like state of it.

And about that drug-trip vibe; Saragossa Manuscript seems to aspire to an all-encompassing window into everything, and I mean everything. The stories range from cautionary tales on temptation, religious guilt, and satire on narrative itself. The movie’s reality is never in stone, nor should it be. I’m still not sure if I liked this movie just because it kept throwing me for a loop, dozens of times. I guess to truly enjoy the movie, I would not fear becoming lost in the maze but just try to make out the scant whips of meaning within the various tales; no matter how the big picture fits together. Enjoy it for what it is; a disjointed window into humanity that can never measure up, but is charming in its effort. Saragossa Manuscript is confusing, overreaching, and taxing on the brain, but what a journey. A deserving cult classic and a trip for even the most sober of moviegoers.