Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Room 237" Is a Movie That Will Really Make You Want to Watch Another Movie

Room 237 - Directed by Rodney Ascher, featuring theories from Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, and Juli Kearns - Rated R 

I don't clamor for documentaries (I usually like to escape reality when I watch a film, not be confronted by it), but when I heard about Room 237 I was immediately interested.  A film about a bunch of (sometimes) far out theories about The Shining?  That is right up my alley. 
I have loved Stanley Kubrick's films for as long as I can remember.  For whatever reason, however, it wasn't until I re-watched Eyes Wide Shut that I developed an obsessive love of his films.  That film made me look at every inch of the frame, like I was trying to solve some puzzle that may or may not have been there.  Eyes Wide Shut was extremely mysterious, whereas I always found The Shining to be relatively straightforward, even though it features some baffling elements.  Room 237 has opened my eyes...and made me really want to watch that classic Kubrick film again and again.
There isn't much to say about the plot of the film aside from the fact that it points out some very interesting details that you probably have not considered about The Shining.   The highlight of the film is the idea that Kubrick had filmed a fake moon landing for the government and this film was his confession.  There are some more obvious theories about Native Americans (in the actual film, a character mentions that the hotel was built on top of a Native American burial ground), and some less obvious theories about the Holocaust.  They all seem plausible as you watch this documentary.  My favorite moments were when mistakes in continuity were pointed out (the carpet design reversing and furniture disappearing).  It's not that I love movie mistakes; it's that Kubrick doesn't make them.  I had never noticed those before, which tells me I have not given this film the attention it deserves.  Of course a movie about a haunted hotel features subtle changes that might go unnoticed.  Room 237 made me realize just how interesting The Shining is. 
It is quite possible that this film might completely annoy you, however.  If you're not into applying theories to films, then you should obviously skip this.  If you're the type to go with the simplest explanation, then this film will be lost on you.  If you love Kubrick, though, then you probably like to apply theories...
As far as documentaries go, Room 237 features an interesting style.  Rather than show the people making these claims, we instead only get their voices as we see clips from The Shining (and all other Kubrick films) and a multitude of other sources.  It is essentially a long, entertaining youtube clip.  I don't mean that in a negative way at all.  I found Room 237 to be an entertaining and engaging film all around.  I very much enjoyed the use of clips rather than traditional interview shots.  It was quite amusing when they found a clip that perfectly matched up with what the subject was saying.  My favorite moment was when they were talking about Stephen King's angry reaction to the film as a clip of King from his performance in Creepshow was shown.  That one had me laughing aloud. 
It feels odd to apply so much praise to a film that is essentially telling you to go watch another film.  I guess that's what makes Room 237 so special.  It makes both itself and The Shining rewatchable.  I plan on watching The Shining again very soon, and I will most likely return to Room 237 in the future as well, to see if I have forgotten a few moments or theories (which is possible, as there is a lot of information given to the viewer).  Most importantly, Room 237 left me wanting more and more theories, which means that I have to find some new ones on my own.  If a film can reignite my obsession with a Kubrick film, then it is pretty special to me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Lincoln" Is an Amazing Film, Clothed in Immense Entertainment

Lincoln - Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, James Spader, John Hawkes, and David Straithern - Rated PG-13

It’s strange.  Abraham Lincoln has been all over Hollywood lately, yet there has not been a real story told about him in decades.  I’ve seen his assassination recreated in National Treasure: Book of Secrets and The Conspirator, and he’s even battled the undead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (a very fun book, by the way, but a disappointingly dull film).  Lincoln can be killed over and over and be turned into a superhero, but he can’t be a man.  The way Hollywood has avoided tackling the man is a statement on where Abraham Lincoln fits into America’s history.  He is not a man, but a legend.  It’s hard to even think about Lincoln as a human being, which is what most likely has scared off many filmmakers.  Thankfully, Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Daniel Day-Lewis stepped up to make a film about a man, and it turned out to be a brilliant film on every level.
The main reason that Lincoln not only meets but also exceeds expectations is that it is not a traditional biography of the man.  We do not see Lincoln growing up in the log cabin or courting Mary Todd.  We don’t even see his youngest son die, which is something that happened in the White House.  Lincoln, rather than taking the arguably boring broad view, focuses on Lincoln trying to get the Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) passed near the end of the Civil War in order to make sure that the war has at least served a lasting purpose.  Believe it or not, the passage of an amendment in the House of Representatives turned out to be far more interesting and entertaining than a life story. 
Story and focus is important, but a film like this hinges on a single performance.  Once Daniel Day-Lewis was announced to play Lincoln, it seemed perfect.  Who else but the lanky, gaunt method actor could portray Abraham Lincoln with any seriousness?  (Liam Neeson was attached at one point.  A good physical choice, for sure, but I’m not sure how it would have turned out.)  As an admitted fanboy of Day-Lewis (I count his performances in The Crucible, Gangs of New York, and There Will Be Blood among the best of all time), I became very excited about this film.  When the first picture was released, it was almost creepy how much he looked like the President.  Then the preview was released and I finally heard the voice; I was sold.
Abraham Lincoln, according to historical reports, had a high-pitched voice with a Midwest twang that some even described as painful to listen to.  He was not a booming, baritone giant as many have imagined him over the years.  When I first heard Day-Lewis’s take on the voice, the history buff in me was very pleased.  After watching the entire performance, the film critic in me was amazed.  It’s no shock that Day-Lewis completely inhabited the character of Lincoln, but I was surprised by how much Lincoln was able to be portrayed as a human, rather than a legend.  As Lincoln tells his funny stories and plays with his son, you start to forget you’re watching a portrayal of one of the most beloved political icons in the history of the world.  You realize you’re watching a man. 
I was afraid when this project was first announced that it would be a film that simply added to the legend.  Steven Spielberg is a director I love, but I wasn’t sure he could create a very interesting film about Lincoln.  I thought he might sugarcoat the subject or just give a gung-ho “Go America!” movie.  While I did leave the theater quite proud of my country, it certainly wasn’t because I just witnessed some propaganda.  It was because I had seen a film about one of our greatest politicians fighting for a noble cause.  It didn’t hurt that the film turned out to be quite funny, as well.
The humor of Lincoln will most likely be the most surprising part of the viewing experience.  The images and previews for the film have sold it as this somber, serious portrait of a man and a mission to end slavery, and it is slightly that, but it also takes backroom politics (trading favors and promising jobs) and turns it into entertaining spectacle.  The humor is nearly deceitful, though, as it overshadows the fact that votes for the Amendment are basically purchased.  Under normal circumstances, that would create moments of internal struggle, but the topic up for debate is slavery.  The question posed (and pretty much answered) both onscreen and off is whether or not the end justifies the means.  It seems like the typical answer to that issue in film these days is that individual good is more important than the big picture.  Thankfully, Lincoln makes no bones about the fact that ending slavery is the right thing to do, even if a few “wrong” things are done to achieve this. 
More importantly, the humor makes Lincoln a feel-good, fun experience.  The laughs are well-deserved, too.  Lincoln’s stories are always amusing, especially when told with Day-Lewis’s energy.  Writer Tony Kushner has crafted a very tight script, dialogue-wise.  Lincoln's stories and speeches are great, but the debates on the House floor are equally compelling and entertaining.  Sure, most of this can be chalked up to historical record, but if you actually research the words of the time, it is still impressive that Kushner was able to piece all of this together in a coherent and interesting fashion. 
Riveting political speeches on paper are one thing, but the words float off meaningless if not for a good performance.  I have already stated my awe of Day-Lewis, and the rest of the cast deserves plenty of praise.  Tommy Lee Jones is a standout as Thaddeus Stevens.  In the previews, we are given a cheesy scene in which he addresses a group of people, “Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery,” waving his cane with each word to prove his sincerity.  Taken out of context, that looks like a scene that belongs in the film I was afraid had been made.  He is actually being a bit sarcastic in this moment and it is part of an overall wonderful performance as Stevens represents the character that does have to struggle with the decision to be dishonest for the greater good.  Sally Field, David Straithern, Lee Pace, and Bruce McGill round out the heavier parts of the cast, but the list could go on.  Lincoln is certainly one of the finest casts of 2012. 
The film is tied together with a John Williams score (this is a Spielberg film, after all), and it is the perfect bow to put on top of this great film.  Lincoln provides the complete movie package.  It is interesting and informative, it's entertaining (surprisingly so), and it showcases some powerhouse performances.  If pressed, I could probably give you a couple of things to complain about, but looking back on the film, I can't really single out any real issues.  Simply put, Lincoln is my favorite film of the year.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
I want to clarify that bit about being a little deceitful to gain something important.  Usually, the lesson of the film is that if you are willing to sell your soul a little bit, then you can become totally evil.  Telling one white lie could lead to the downfall of mankind.  What a joke.  Compromising your values in a small way to gain something greater is an American tradition.  It is a good trait to showcase on film?  Absolutely not.  Is it realistic?  Yep.  I found it refreshing that Thaddeus Stevens had to swallow his pride and lie to get what he wanted all along.  Maybe that isn't heroic by Hollywood standards, but that's the point.  Life is all about picking your battles, and in reality, you don't get rewarded for nitpicking.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"The Sessions" Isn't Worthy of Awards, but It Is Worth a Watch

The Sessions- Written and directed by Ben Lewin, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy - Rated R

The Sessions is one of those movies with a vague title that suddenly appears and, in this case, garners immense critical adoration.  I’ll be honest; I was completely unaware of this movie until I saw mentions of Oscars for stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt.  That’s never a good thing for someone like me.  If the first thing I hear about a movie is that it deserves awards, I become suspicious.  Shouldn’t the movie be able to sell tickets on its own without sounding the awards trumpets?  Also, a movie seems like Oscar bait if all I know about it is who is in it and that they should get trophies.  Despite that off-putting introduction to The Sessions, I ended up really enjoying the film.
The plot of The Sessions definitely seems like Oscar bait as well.  It’s the story of Mark O’Brien, a man who lives most of his days in an iron lung, and his quest to lose his virginity.  A guy in an iron lung has sex.  We’ve got a disability, based on a true story, and it is a unique subject.  Yeah, I see why the awards are being mentioned, but this is not about winning awards, not by a long shot.  First off, this is not a life story.  We are told through narration and old footage that Mark has accomplished many things despite his condition, and has established himself as a poet/writer.  If this were a life story, it would have started at his birth, and ended with him writing a poem or something from his iron lung.  That might have been touching or whatever, but it would not be enjoyable.  Thankfully, The Sessions is about a specific moment in O’Brien’s life when he decided to look into sex amongst the disabled population, and wanted to experience it for himself.
The story is interesting and never delves into melodrama, but what elevates it is Hawkes’s performance.  As a physical performance, it is impressive in that he has to basically lie prone the entire film and be carried around and helped.  It must have been trying to lie around like that throughout the shoot.  More impressive is the voice Hawkes used for the film.  I have never heard the real O’Brien speak, but Hawkes truly sounded like a Bostonian who had a reduced lung capacity. 
Helen Hunt plays the “sex surrogate,” and she does that Helen Hunt thing that she does just fine.  I just can’t really consider her an actress because she just seems to be the same character in everything that she does.  Plus, her forehead is distractingly smooth.  I don’t know what’s going on there, but it’s not natural. 
William H. Macy was a bright spot in the film as a priest who befriends O’Brien.  His scenes led to the most humor as Macy got to run the gamut of facial expressions as he heard O’Brien’s blunt confessions. 
The Sessions, for all its Oscar possibilities, ended up being surprisingly insubstantial.  I enjoyed it and thought the performances were fine, but nothing about it stuck with me.  It’s not that I need a message to a film, but I do like to feel something when I’m supposed to, but everything in this film was light hearted and trivial.  There was no emotional payoff, and it seemed like the filmmakers wanted me to tear up at the end or something.  Maybe I’m missing the point.  Perhaps it’s simply meant to be a feel good movie.  If that’s the case, I felt fine after seeing The Sessions.  I wouldn’t give it any trophies, though. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meet the new Bond, (almost the) same as the old Bond

Skyfall - Directed by Sam Mended, written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Ralph Fiennes, and Javier Bardem - Rated PG-13

This just makes sense: a Chigurh for a film in which Javier Bardem plays the villain.
Casino Royale marked the introduction of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond and set up his tenure as dark and brutal, which was quite a departure from a series that at one point went into outer space.  I loved the film, though some were not fans of the tonal shift and the lack of traditional Bond elements like Q and his gadgets.  Then Quantum of Solace came out and ruined everything (for me, at least).  It was utterly forgettable, had indecipherable action, and was implausible, but not in a fun way.  After that film, MGM (the Bond studio) went bankrupt and it put Bond on an indefinite hiatus.  Apparently all that time off allowed them to come back and get things right…again.

In many aspects, Skyfall serves as a segue into a new Bond, even though the actor is the same.  Q and the gadgets are back along with a lot of familiar music.  (There are also a lot of changes and additions that would be considered spoilers.)  There are plenty references to Bond being an older man and how the old ways need to give way to the new.  It basically felt like the filmmakers were saying, “You know that brooding, hulking Bond?  Well, we’ve toned him down a bit.  Meet the new Bond, (almost the) same as the old Bond.”  That is just fine with me.  I dig the more hardcore James Bond that Craig created, but I also love some gadgets.

Skyfall stands apart from other Bond films in that it is a very personal story for both Bond and MI6.  Bond is presumed dead at the end of the opening mission and is forced to resurrect himself as a spy.  MI6 is attacked and is forced to revaluate their function in a modern world.  Bond gets to do battle with a bitter old MI6 agent (Javier Bardem), and M (Judi Dench) gets to do battle with bureaucrats like Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).  The stakes are exponentially higher than they were in Quantum, when Bond was trying to save the utility department of Colombia or something.

If the stakes are high, then the action will prosper.  Skyfall has a few gigantic action set pieces and they are all well shot and impressive.  Any action fan should be pleased, but you should not expect nonstop action.  In fact, there is about an hour lull between action sequences.  Normally, that would be a flaw in pacing, but the film does not suffer from it because all of the inner workings of MI6 are actually quite interesting.

Rarely do you get downtime in a sequel.  This is Daniel Craig’s third outing as Bond, so there is really no need for him to hang out in the office.  In the previous films, he never seemed to be in England.  Finally, he’s been corralled in a bit and the audience has a chance to breathe between location changes, a welcome change to the usual breakneck speed of sequels and action films.  The interactions between Bond and M help make this time bearable, as Skyfall brings to fruition their love/hate relationship.  Fiennes is there to mix things up, and Ben Whishaw, as Q, makes every scene he’s in a bit more interesting. 

A good Bond film is usually defined by its villain, though, not by the protagonists.  Javier Bardem was brought in to give Craig his first true villain.  I am a big fan of Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale), but he was not very imposing as far as villains go.  He had an inhaler! (The villain in Quantum doesn’t even deserve mentioning; I only bring it up to let you know I did not forget about the boring Mathieu Amalric.)  Bardem ratchets it up as a weird, tittering, angry psychopath.  He’s basically like the Joker from The Dark Knight, except he’s more than happy to let you know why he’s so messed up.  Some have already cried foul about the similarities, but I’m cool with it.  He’s entertaining, and that’s all that matters.  In fact, my only complaint is that we don’t get to see him until over an hour into the film.  I suppose that adds power to the reveal, but more Bardem is always good.  He chewed up the scenery and it was exactly what the film needed. 

Bardem may have chewed on the scenery, but the scenery itself made the film absolutely beautiful.  This is easily the most impressively cinematic Bond film.  Director Sam Mendes and Director of Photography Roger Deakins present one amazing visual after another.  The locales, like Shanghai, are naturally exotic and beautiful, but they add to it using a vast array of colors and it is shot in a way so that it can be appreciated.  I also liked how a lot of the film is shot behind Bond, so we get to enter most of these locations right along with him.

Skyfall was a long time coming, and it was certainly worth the wait.  Those let down with the last effort, as I was, will be pleased.  Those who are upset with the direction the series had taken in general might not be completely happy, but they definitely have less to complain about with this one.  I consider Casino Royale to be one of the best Bond films ever made, and now Skyfall is part of that discussion.  Let’s just hope they don’t need to restart it again anytime soon.      

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I have to admit that I loved seeing James Bond get all Home Alone when they all started booby-trapping the old house.  Bonus points go to M for her awesome lightbulb shotgun rounds.

I thought this was a very good send off for Judi Dench.  I must admit that it felt kind of weird that she remained as M, even though Bond changed.  (I know it's happened like this before, but this is first time I witnessed the change as the films were released.)  Looking forward to seeing Craig report to Fiennes for at least two more films.

It's good to finally have a Moneypenny and a Q. 

How cool would it have been if Pierce Brosnan had been Bardem's character.  A former agent cast aside, back with a vendetta against M.  That would have been amazing.  It would also acknowledge that James Bond is simply a code name just as M is.  Still, I was happy with Bardem's performance.