Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Room 237"

 4 / 5 

Almost everyone who sees The Shining has the same first reaction: Huh?

For a movie that's supposed to be a horror film, it's not particularly scary.  For a movie directed by a genius, visionary director, it seems a step down from the greatness of 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange.  For a movie based on a Stephen King novel, it sure doesn't feel like Stephen King.

There's a reason for that, says one of the several unseen narrators of the vivid, unique documentary Room 237.  It's because The Shining isn't really The Shining at all; it's really just Stanley Kubrick's cinematic confessional, a visual apology for his role as the director of the faked Apollo 11 moon landing on a soundstage, the footage that fooled the world into thinking we had gone to the moon.

Unless The Shining, as two more of the five narrators offer, is actually about repressed sexual urges, filled with subliminal images.  Or about the psychological need to deal with and exorcise the past.

Then again, it isn't that deeply buried by Kubrick: The Shining is an exploration of lingering guilt over the horror of the Holocaust.  Unless it's about the genocide of Native Americans by white Europeans.

But rather than offering up a bunch of crackpot ideas from suspect sources, Room 237 instead has found tremendously well-spoken, intelligent, interesting people who, for one reason or another, became obsessive devotees of the film, which more or less bombed at the box office when it debuted in 1980.

Over the years, they've all recognized that a Stanley Kubrick film was never just a movie, it was a work of art as carefully designed and executed to be as tantalizingly detailed and symbolic as a Da Vinci painting.  Indeed, there are times when hearing these people (including ABC News veteran Bill Blakemore) talk about The Shining recalls some of Dan Brown's most breathlessly complicated passages about Da Vinci's hidden meanings.

When you hear them laid out, all of the explanations seem both perfectly logical and perfectly ludicrous, usually simultaneously, even the one about the moon landing.  It's enough to make you check your own brain -- watching Room 237 will have you agog at your own willingness to believe that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing.

That's how beautifully laid out these theories are, and while Room 237 wisely never shows any of the narrators on screen (we judge far too readily based on outward appearance), it does incorporate a rather jaw-dropping amount of footage from The Shining itself, often slowing it down, capturing still frames, adding helpful arrows and diagrams, and making us see things we've never seen before.

There's the Playgirl magazine (yes, the one with naked pictures of men) that Jack Torrance reads when he visits the Overlook for the first time.

There are the carefully placed containers of Calumet baking powder and Tang.

There are the glaring continuity errors, some so bizarre and incomprehensible once they're pointed out that they can't be simple mistakes.

There must be a lot more to The Shining that meets the eye ... there must, right?  Room 237 certainly makes a brilliant case for it, and in doing so leaves you both in awe of and slightly worried about these people who have become downright obsessive about the film.  For the better part of two hours, they point out inconsistencies, symbols (real and imagined) and unexplained quirks you never noticed, and maybe never wanted to notice.

The most visually arresting section comes when one Shining devotee relates the moment in which he realized the film was a visual Moebius strip that could be viewed both forwards and backwards -- and then, astonishingly, we watch scenes from the movie played out just this way.

Right before our eyes, it becomes clear that Kubrick was a visual architect of the highest order, a filmmaker with a precisely calculated design for constructing his film. Well, either that, or he liked to put all of the important images in the exact center of the screen.

By the end of Room 237, The Shining makes 2001 look almost simple in its symbolism by comparison. (There are a lot of moments that put the two films side by side, not surprisingly, but none is as mind-blowing as the moment when 2001's Star Child and the screaming face from Saul Bass's The Shining poster appear next to each other.)

Did Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist, use common consumer products like Calumet and Tang intentionally and with great meaning, or did his production designer just think they looked good on screen?  Why so many eagles in the movie?  What's with the number 42?  Why is there no hedge maze in the establishing shot of the hotel?  Why does the pattern on a carpet change at a key moment for Danny, and why is the little boy wearing an Apollo 11 shirt?

How much did Kubrick intend to plant as clues to some unknown puzzle, how much of what is interpreted is accidental, and how much was just toying with his fans?

The more you try to dismiss Room 237 as cinematic conspiracy-theory nuttiness, the more compelled you become by the theories it's putting forth.

Making it even more compelling is the brilliant way director Rodney Ascher tells the entire story by using clips from The Shining and from dozens and dozens of other movies, both classic and obscure.  If there's ever been a documentary about a particular film made up largely of clips from other films, I don't know it -- and what Room 237 does editorially is a bit of a cinematic miracle.

There are some weird touches throughout, such as the insertion of clips or images from The Shining in other movies, and often the film begins taking us down one path only to stop and change course.  That's because there seem to be about as many interpretations of The Shining as there are fans of the film.  The Shining can apparently be almost anything you want it to be, without the nuisance of the filmmaker himself expressing an opinion.

Room 237 will likely be most interesting to those who have studied film criticism and film theory -- as well as anyone with a background in literary interpretation.  But that makes it sound awfully highbrow. Yes, at times it's complicated and makes references to things, ideas and people that may be lost on some people; but mostly, it's a movie that really makes you look hard at a film you may have seen many times, but you've never really examined.

Some of the narrators go too far (I still can't see Kubrick's face in the clouds above the Volkswagen), some not far enough (if it is about the Holocaust, then what is it trying to say?), but mostly they leave you almost slack-jawed by the realization that a film you thought you knew is one you actually don't know at all.

Room 237 is now available on Video on Demand.

Viewed March 29, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Favorite Films: "Run Lola Run"

There are some worthwhile philosophical questions at the heart of Run Lola Run, the 1998 German film that makes very difficult things look astonishingly easy.

For instance, the movie wonders how much of life is unchangeable, how many things simply will be no matter what we do -- and, at the same time, what kinds of consequences, both intended and unforeseen,  our actions can have on the world.

It suggests we can shape our own lives and our own destinies, except for the things we can't.  It considers that the smallest change in our intended path can have astounding consequences, but that we'll never know what the other options might have been.

More vitally, Run Lola Run changes the way we think of film.  Through traditional live-action film, animation, still photography, visual effects and, most of all, pulsating, rhythmic music, it blends and bends these media into forms previously unimagined.

And yet, Run Lola Run is probably the most accessible, engaging, exciting, happily entertaining arthouse/experimental film you'll ever encounter.  Many people have avoided it because it's in German -- but the majority of the film can be enjoyed without even looking at the subtitles.  Other people think it looks too experimental and edgy -- but even if you're the staunchest film traditionalist, after two or three minutes you'll be hooked.

The story is so simple it only takes about 25 minutes to tell it, which the movie does three times in a row.  Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the small-time thug boyfriend of Lola (Franka Potente), and he's in bad trouble.  He's lost a bunch of money that he was supposed to deliver to his bosses, and he's got 20 minutes before they find out -- and they're not going to be happy.

He calls Lola and begs her to help.  She speeds into action.  The choices she makes, the steps she takes will all determine the outcome.  With lightning speed, she acts, she thinks, she decides, she's like one of those "Choose Your Ending" books, except she doesn't know that she's making all of these choices, nor that certain things she does, sometimes blindly, will change the course of life for the people she runs across.

Director Tom Tykwer, who arguably has never again reached the imaginative heights of Run Lola Run, has nothing but fun with some serious themes.  There is, for instance, a moment in which Lola stumbles into a muttering, angry woman on the street, and through a rapid succession of still images we peer decades into the woman's future and see how that one momentary meeting will have profound consequences.

Once the 20 minutes are up, Lola and Manni have to live with the consequences -- and the film immediately swoops back in time to look at what would happen if Lola did something just slightly differently, if she stopped here to pet a dog, or she turned left there instead of right.  Will she change the outcome?  Or, more to the point, is it possible to change the outcome?

Run Lola Run is a fascinating puzzle, an adrenaline-rush of a movie that offers up deep, profound questions, then delights in never giving us a single moment in which to consider them, much less to breathe.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Oz the Great and Powerful"

 3 / 5 

Great and powerful is a bit of a stretch, but after the overblown bombast of Alice in Wonderland, expectations for Oz the Great and Powerful couldn't be much lower.  Disney, the studio behind Oz, is  incapable these days of producing a small or modest films, but fortunately Oz avoids the wretched excess of Alice -- though its determination to recall the vastly superior Wizard of Oz keeps it from becoming its own creation.

It's neither a dazzler nor a dud, with some real charms that are often offset by CGI garishness and a plot that contains about three characters too many, all of whom go on for about 30 minutes too long.

For no reason other than to tie itself to the visual rhythms of 1939's Wizard of Oz, the new Oz begins with an elongated prologue filmed in the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the original and in black and white.  When it finally segues into color, the effect is not as stunning or surprising as Wizard, in part because movie theaters are no longer staffed with individual projectionists, so the black-and-white footage is framed within the larger wide screen, a dead giveaway that the full screen will come to life once we get to Oz.

Getting there is not as stylish an affair as the 1939 movie, though the mode of travel is the same -- a tornado, this one created not with large fans, miniature sets and a woman's nylon stocking, but with lots and lots of computer power.  So begins a series of visual disappointments that serve primarily to remind us that the tricks of the trade 74 years ago may have been old-fashioned, but they created breathtaking movie magic that all the pixels in the world can't replicate.

Played by James Franco, Oscar ("All my friends call me Oz") Diggs is a circus sideshow magician who  can't marry the woman he loves because he wants to be great -- it's not the most exciting motivation on the order of dreaming of life beyond the rainbow, perhaps, but like so much of Oz the Great and Powerful, it gets the job done.  The woman is one of several doppelgaengers Oz will meet once the twister takes him to that strange land -- and in the style of modern "origin" stories, we learn she's betrothed instead to a man named Gale, leaving us to reason she'll have a daughter named Dorothy, who will go to live with her uncle and aunt ... you know the rest.

Once he arrives in the CG version of Oz, Oz learns more or less immediately that he has long been expected.  He's a prophecy come to life, a man named after the land who will bring peace after a long period of suffering at the hands of two witches who rule from the Emerald City.  They're Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), two of three daughters of the late, lamented King of Oz -- and they want to take over his throne.

They send Oz on a familiar-sounding quest, down a certain road made of yellow brick with orders to find and kill the wicked witch.  Along the way, wouldn't you know it, he meets some odd denizens of Oz who accompany him, but instead of a lion, tin man and scarecrow, this trip is made by a charming china doll (beautifully voiced by Joey King), a winged monkey in a bellman's outfit (voice of Zach Braff) and the aforementioned wicked witch -- who, it turns out, is actually the good one, a perky blonde named Glinda (Michelle Williams), who reveals that it's actually her sisters who are holding the Land of Oz hostage.

Indeed, in a rather complicated plot twist, Theodora's skin turns green, she dons a pointed black hat and cackles a lot.

The psychosexual motivations of the two sisters make for the movie's weakest scenes, and unfortunately there are quite a few of them, along with exhausting computer-generated graphics that are of variable quality -- more than a few times, the actors seem to be running in place, unsure of where they should be looking or what they are running from.

Oz the Great and Powerful labors mightily to square itself with the 1939 movie, which it was legally obligated not to directly reference -- but everything from the tornado to the yellow-brick road, from the Munchkins (they even sing!) to the costumes, from the saturated colors to much of the set design pulls in visual references to The Wizard of Oz so frequently to be almost distracting.

The movie is best when it focuses on the relationship between Oz and Glinda, and her efforts to get him to see that while he may not quite be the all-powerful wizard of prophecy, he is all they've got and he has to believe in himself.  It's a sweet story, well-played by the actors and shot with director Sam Raimi's comic-book-influenced visual flair.

But the genuine humanity infused by the lead actors (particularly Franco and Williams) sometimes has a hard time competing with the epic digital scale of the film.  Oddly, it's a movie about learning lessons and accepting who you are -- but never quite has the courage to be its own creation.

Nothing will ever compare with the relative simplicity, lovely emotion and visual flair of The Wizard of Oz.  While Oz the Great and Powerful makes surprisingly bold efforts to compare itself directly with that film, it simply can't live up to it, and leaves you wishing it had become its own singular creation.

Oz the Great and Powerful is an entertaining recollection of a superior creation.  It is inarguably a loving and sincere tribute, as loud and garish as a Vegas spectacle that certainly gives you your money's worth, it even leaves you wanting to spend even more time in Oz -- albeit with Judy Garland, Frank Morgan and Margaret Hamilton.

Viewed March 9, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, March 3, 2013


 1.5 / 5 

Stoker is an awful movie, barely redeemed by the visual sensibilities of its director, Park Chan-wook, whose South Korean movies have been widely praised.  Stoker does indeed often look good but generally makes little sense.

The script by actor Wentworth Miller has clearly been influenced by Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, presenting a mysterious stranger named Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who shows up days after the death of Richard Stoker, which has left his waxen, sexually starved wife (Nicole Kidman) and creepy, sexually inexperienced daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) alone in an antebellum mansion.

India makes Wednesday Addams look chipper as she skulks and sulks and spies on her mother, who more or less jumps Uncle Charlie's bones at the funeral.  But not everyone trusts Uncle Charlie, especially the older women like Auntie Gin (a completely wasted Jacki Weaver, offering no signs of the talent that got her two Oscar nominations), who suspiciously disappear after raising their doubts.

But the movie isn't a straightforward mystery, nor is it a sexual coming-of-age story, nor is it a gothic melodrama, nor is it a perverse family drama -- it's all of those things but, more to the point, none of them; the crazy-quilt script careens from one tone to another, but never gets any of them right.

The actors are a big part of the problem.  While it's true that the script gives them absolutely nothing to work with, they barely try.  Wasikowska lets her pout do most of the heavy lifting, Goode just smiles like a handsome idiot, and Kidman phones it in from a different place entirely.  At least on screen, she possesses not an ounce of maternal instinct, trying so hard to ooze sensuality she comes across as a desperately sex-starved version of Mrs. Wiggins from the old Carol Burnett Show but without the laughs -- without much emotion of any sort, actually.

The first two thirds of Stoker literally make no sense; the visuals don't match the sparse dialogue, the story feels like an afterthought, with minor characters turning up dead and others introduced and then forgotten within moments.  The main characters, meanwhile, meander from one scene to the next with an irritating (not unsettling) disconnectedness.  Most of the time, they look drugged into a stupor.

Finally, things begin to get vaguely interesting in the final 30 minutes, but only momentarily before committing the grand mistake of trying to explain everything -- with the exception of minor annoyances like character motivation and plot cohesion.

Stoker doesn't have the nerve to be a sexual fantasia along the lines of Reflections in a Golden Eye or the humor to go wildly off the rails into the territory of high camp.  Though it references other very good films, like the aforementioned Shadow of a Doubt, not to mention Hitchcock's Psycho and the Grand Guignol tradition, it's not even close to being in the same league.  Without game actors, it can't even make it into the category of being so bad it's good -- Stoker is just plain bad.

Viewed March 2, 2013 -- Arclight Hollywood


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Catching Up: "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"

 4 / 5 

What a sweet, honest surprise this is, a movie about love that actually considers what love might be all about, and whether it would be too late if love found us right everything else were about to end.  Almost every lovely, un-ironic moment in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World evokes a tone of wistful longing.  This is not a movie for the hard-hearted.

It begins where Armageddon or Deep Impact might have left off.  Earth is doomed.  A miles-wide asteroid is heading straight for us, and this is no joke.  In the opening scene, Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife sit in their car listening, slack-jawed, to the news report: In three weeks, everyone will be dead.  He looks like he might be ready to tell her how much he loves her.  She turns toward him, then opens the door and runs away from him as fast as she can.

Dodge isn't sure he can blame her.  He's not the kind of person he imagined he would be.  His heart, though, is true, and it's breaking.  Everyone else in the world is living out their craziest notions (the film gets the cheap laughs out of the way fast, and they are good ones), but Dodge can only think about what awful timing he has; now, the final day will come and he'll be alone with no one to love him.

That's all he wants, but something so seemingly simple is now out of his grasp.  Likewise, his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), knows there's absolutely no chance she'll be able to see her family back in England one last time.  The world is shutting down, and the airlines, no doubt driven by the directives of their financial executives, finally have just closed up for good.

Some stalwart souls are still at it, like the unflappable news anchor on TV (Mark Moses) and Dodge's maid, Elsa (Tonita Castro), who refuses to consider not coming in once a week.  When she finally gives Dodge an explanation in Spanish, you may not understand the words but you get the idea: The people who put on the bravest faces are the most scared of all.

On the other hand, if the world really were ending you can bet a lot of people would be itching to riot, and when a melee breaks out just down the street from their apartment building, Dodge and Penny hit the road.  He wants to find a childhood sweetheart, the woman he should have married instead of the one he did.  If you can't profess true love with just a few days left to go, when can you do it?  Meanwhile, Dodge knows a guy who has a plane, and might be able to get Penny back to England in time.

A road trip follows, but Seeking a Friend for the End of the World isn't quite that obvious.  Dodge gets where he wants to go, picking up a scruffy mutt along the way, and gets Penny where she wants to go, but the end result isn't at all what was planned.

This is a movie with an apocalyptic vision, but that imagines that if the world ended in three weeks, a lot of us would go off the deep end, but most people would probably be relatively calm.  We'd probably still go to the grocery store and read books and water the yard, because that's what we do.   Life goes on, even if it won't tomorrow.  Is this really how people would react?  Who knows?  I'd like to think maybe so.

Until its final, final moment, which makes good on every promise (and threat) the title implies, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World imparts a wise sweetness, an undefeated acceptance.  Director Lorene Scafaria brings all of it a lovely, clean visual look and quiet pacing that is a surprisingly good fit for both Knightley and, best of all, Carell, who is quiet, desperate, sad and serene all at once.  A beautifully realized original score and music mix add a final burnish.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World shares a sci-fi-tinged indie vibe with last year's underrated Safety Not Guaranteed, along with a genuinely big-hearted, optimistic view of the world -- in this movie's case, at least as optimistic as you can be knowing you've only got three weeks left.