Psycho (1960)


The scream that started it all.

The scream that started it all.

(1960) Horror (Paramount) Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Patricia Hitchcock, Vaughn Taylor, Lurene Tuttle, John Anderson, Mort Mills, Ted Knight, Jeanette Nolan (voice), Virginia Gregg (voice), Kit Carson, Prudence Beers, George Eldredge, Sam Flint. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Some movies transcend the genres they’re in. The Searchers is a Western that is greater than its genre. Saving Private Ryan is a war movie that sets the standard for its genre. Horror movies have a lot of films that are bigger than their genre. Arguably, the one that might make the most impact among mainstream film audiences is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

When it came out the year I was born movie audiences really hadn’t seen anything like it. Back then there were no ratings, just the Hays code that all movies had to adhere to. Psycho skirted those codes without violating them, a neat trick. It did it so well that many remember it as being more violent than it was and even remember the red hue of the blood despite it being filmed in black and white. It was a game changer and it set the stage for how the modern horror movie is made, for better and for worse.

Marion Crane (Leigh) is a secretary at a financial institution who is tired of being single. She is deeply in love with Sam Loomis (Gavin) but he lives in California, she lives in Arizona and he is barely able to make ends meet. There’s no way he could possibly take care of her.

After a lunch time rendezvous with her lover, she is given $40,000 of Tom Cassidy’s (Albertson) money to deposit. Instead, she snaps and drives off with it, hoping to run away to California and use her ill-gotten gains to start a new life with her man.

However, she is too tired to drive there all in one session, so she stops for the night at the off-the-beaten-path Bates Motel. There the innkeeper Norman Bates (Perkins) rents her a room and has a sweet but increasingly creepy conversation with her. Afterwards, she retires to her room for the night to wash the road off of her and get a good night’s sleep.

However things go horribly wrong and her sister Lila (Miles) hires a private investigator (Balsam) to check up on her baby sister. There is something going on at Bates Motel. Something terrible. Something deadly. It’s much like the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Financed by Hitchcock himself and made at for what was even at the time a pittance, it remains Hitchcock’s classic horror movie. Now, he is the Master of Suspense – not the Master of Horror – and he is best known for films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Rear Window but many people think this was his finest hour. It certainly is one of his most visceral films, even if by suggestion more than the actual showing of blood and carnage.

There is a scene in which a woman takes a shower that has become iconic. During the course of the scene she is attacked in the shower by what appears to be an old woman. The naked screaming woman tries to protect herself but is stabbed repeatedly in the shower and is mortally wounded. The sequence takes only 45 seconds but took a week to shoot and is as masterfully edited as any sequence in film history. It is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected. It turned horror conventions on their collective ears and paved the way for the opening sequence of Jaws among others. That it happens ten minutes into the movie completely changes the movie’s direction – and yet fits into the story seamlessly.

Based on a novel by Robert Bloch (who famously once said “I have the heart of a little boy; I keep it in a jar on my desk”) Hitchcock got the rights for a paltry nine thousand dollars and turned the story which was meant to be a kind of pulp horror story into a classic film.

Perkins entire career was defined by this role which he would reprise in future films, all of which were made after Hitchcock’s death. It would typecast the young, handsome actor for pretty much the rest of his life, but characteristically he didn’t resent being typecast in it and remembered the making of the film fondly up until his own death in 1992 (Central Florida movie fans may not be aware that he attended Rollins College at one time).

Leigh was also a presence in a brief but notable role. It is her performance that helped convince John Carpenter to cast her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween. Talk about far-reaching influences, right? In any case, the Master of Suspense kept the tension up to maximum throughout the movie from the moment Marion Crane drives off with the cash.

Most people have seen Psycho on television or on home video. It is one of those movies that when seen on a big screen is even more remarkable. If it plays in an art house or revival theater anywhere near you, it is worth your while to seek it out, even if you’ve seen it before on television. It was meant to be seen on a big screen despite the intimacy of the setting. It has inspired a shot-by-shot remake by Gus van Sant and a hit television series on A&E. It remains for many the quintessential horror movie, one that even after half a century is still scary as hell.

WHY RENT THIS: Suspenseful and if you don’t know the twist, shocking. Career-defining performance by Perkins. Leigh brief but memorable. One of Hitchcock’s all-time greatest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While extreme for its day is pretty tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality and violence, once again tame by today’s standards but shocking in 1960.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hitchcock’s last film to be shot in black and white, and also his biggest box office success.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc 2008 release as well as the 2010 Blu-Ray release includes newsreel footage of the movie’s premiere and the special rules regarding latecomers, two different versions of the notorious shower scene including one without music (the way Hitch intended it originally), an audio interview of Hitchcock by French director Francois Truffaut,  a discussion of Hitchcock’s legacy including interviews with modern filmmakers who owe their careers to the Master of Suspense, and a full-length episode from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32M on an $806,947 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Fury

Phantom (2013)


Heads that talk.

Heads that talk.

(2013) Drama (Ganko) Yuki Fujita, Masato Tsujioka. Directed by Jonathan Soler

We are used to movies being a certain way, telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. However, there are no laws when it comes to making a movie. A filmmaker of sufficient imagination and courage can choose to make a movie in any state they want. While we generally call these Art Films and they appeal to a very limited audience here in the United States, some of the world’s most beloved and acclaimed movies fall under this characterization.

Phantom is a movie shot by a French filmmaker in Tokyo over a six month period. The dialogue consists of a man and a woman talking. Both of them are young people, recently out of college. They are boyfriend and girlfriend and are very worried about their immediate future – the woman is essentially unemployed, picking up menial one day jobs (such as holding up a cardboard sign inviting patrons to come into a restaurant or arcade) and her rent is coming do. She has no idea how she’s going to pay it.

The man is comforting and has a job of his own but there isn’t much left over to help her pay her rent. They spend an evening talking about things that concern young people – what does the future hold? Who am I? What is my place in the world? Do I even have one?

And that’s essentially it. Oh, one more thing – rather than just filming the two people talking, Soler superimposes images of the couple doing things around Tokyo as well as images he captured randomly while walking around the Japanese capital. Some of the images are beautiful, others less so but there is often an oblique connection with what is being said in the dialogue.

This is a movie that isn’t going to appeal to audiences that think that the Twilight series is the height of filmmaking, or any movie that doesn’t have a superhero in it is not worth their time. It takes some work and patience. It requires some listening skills. While having a bit of focus and concentration is useful, one can also choose to watch it with their minds wide open and let the images take their imagination wherever it takes them.

In other words, there isn’t just one way to watch this film. There also isn’t just one way to take this film. For my own part, I found it a useful way to get at least a modicum of understanding of the mindset of young people; as a middle aged film critic that can be very useful indeed, reminding me that the things that face the generation currently making their way into adulthood are far more challenging than what faced my generation, or at least challenging in a different way.

The movie is in Japanese with English subtitles. One of the things that I really like about the movie is the way its set up; we see the woman come home to her shabby apartment after her day’s work. She makes herself a package of instant ramen noodles, has a shower and goes to sleep. Then the conversation with the boyfriend begins. The way the dialogue works, we aren’t 100% certain whether the boyfriend came to her apartment late and the conversation is taking place after his arrival or whether she is dreaming the conversation. Maybe her whole life is a dream. That’s really up to your own interpretation.

It should be noted that the movie hasn’t received a North American release as of yet. The filmmakers are reportedly hoping to secure a North American DVD release but at this time the film has only seen release in France and on French home video. Go to their website by clicking on the photo above if you would like more information about the movie and any news about future availability in North America – my understanding is that the current DVD release is in Japanese with English subtitles and can be purchased from Amazon’s French website so it may be a pricey proposition to get it sent to an American address. Perhaps as an alternative it may be available for online streaming at some point.

This is very much a movie in which what you get out of it depends on what you’re willing to put into it. Again, not everyone is going to appreciate that. However, if you are willing to put in some time, some thought and some imagination, you may well find this to be a rewarding experience. Even if you don’t like the movie, I suspect you may well respect what Soler is trying to accomplish. While I can’t recommend it to my general readership, more adventurous film buffs may want to give this one a whirl.

REASONS TO GO: Dream-like atmosphere. Some really nifty cinematography. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: You’re essentially listening in on an hour and 20 minute conversation. Requires a certain amount of patience and z

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in the streets of Tokyo with a hand-held DSLR Canon EOS SD Mark II.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/14: The movie hasn’t received an American release as of yet and as such has not yet been reviewed on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Pompeii

Riddick


Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine, Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pla, Danny Blanco Hall, Noah Danby, Neil Napier, Nolan Gerald Funk, Karl Urban, Andreas Apergis, Keri Lynn Hilson, Charlie Marie Dupont, Jan Gerste, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, Antoinette Kalaj, Lani Minella. Directed by David Twohy

Some characters need to be on their own turf to really be effective. Indiana Jones, for example, is at his best in some ruined palace, searching for treasure; high society shindigs are not his thing. As for Richard B. Riddick, well, let’s put him on some forgotten miserable barely habitable rock in the middle of deep space populated by vicious, deadly creatures and we’re interested.

And that’s just where Riddick (Diesel) finds himself after being betrayed by Lord Vaako (Urban) of the Necromongers (from The Chronicles of Riddick which preceded this). The world is desolate, filled with carrion eaters, a jackal/dog hybrid and a slithering nasty that has a venomous sting on its scorpion-like tail and a penchant for hiding in standing pools of water. Riddick is left on this planet to die, his leg broken and without any supplies or weapons except for a tiny little throwing knife.

Riddick manages to set his broken leg the hard way and finds his way to a grassland which is a bit less predator-filled. He manages to tame one of the jackal/dog puppy hybrids and keeps it as a pet and watchdog. He survives for years this way.

When he sees a storm brewing, he realizes his happy haven is about to be overrun by the slithering nasties. He needs to get off this rock and fast. He’s found a mercenary outpost and presses the panic button, making sure that he is detected. Given the bounty on his head, it isn’t long before two sets of bounty hunters – one led by the sleazy Santana (Molla) with his brutish sidekick Diaz (Bautista), the other a group of mercenaries led by Boss Johns (Nable) who has a personal stake in Riddick. He is supported by the laconic Moss (Woodbine) and the aptly-named Dahl (Sackhoff), a lesbian with no time for Santana’s shenanigans and the ability to kick his ass to back it up.

As you might guess, the two parties begin feuding almost immediately and Riddick is forced to pick them off one by one. The storm is almost upon them and once it gets there, things are going to get really, really bad.

This is more of a throwback to the first film in the series, 2000’s Pitch Black more than its successor. That was more of a thriller than the space opera that was The Chronicles of Riddick. Neither movie did particularly well at the theatrical box office but both performed much better on home video. Of course, it’s taken nine years for the second sequel to hit the screen (has it really been that long?) and tastes have changed somewhat since then.

Diesel has been identified with this role in many ways more so than Dom Toretto from the Fast and Furious franchise. Riddick is in many ways the ultimate badass; he’s a survivor no matter how overwhelming the odds and it is a prudent man who is terrified of Riddick. Yes, he has had his eyes surgically altered so that he can see in the dark – an effect they used well in the first film but for whatever reason have shied away from ever since.

The rest of the cast is pretty much serviceable but then they really aren’t given a whole lot of personality other than the one-dimensional kind. Sackhoff, best-known to genre fans for her run as Starbuck in the highly respected Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy a few years back, shows some big screen promise; she’s got tons of charisma, oodles of good looks and plenty of chops to become the female action hero that has been sorely lacking in Hollywood.

The creature effects are pretty spectacular and all of the non-human monsters look believable and deadly. Even Riddick has problems with the slithering nasty and realizes that discretion is the better part of valor with those baddies (he spends some time developing an immunity to the venom but rarely takes them on head-on if he can avoid it). While the slithering nasties (called mud demons  by and large) aren’t quite as lethal in some ways as the creatures Riddick faced in the first film, they do resemble the titular Aliens in some ways.

There is a good deal of posturing and posing, that kind of testosterone-slurping “my balls are bigger than yours” competitiveness between the various Mercs and Bounty Hunters (including Dahl) which gets a bit tiresome over the length of the film. The film’s climax is also a bit of a letdown, lacking epic scope and originality. It just kind of ends.

Thanks to a pretty minuscule budget by sci-fi standards, it seems logical that the movie will make a tidy profit, making the likelihood of a fourth film in the franchise (fifth if you count the short The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury) pretty strong. That won’t bother me in the least; as anti-heroic as he is, Riddick is one of the more compelling characters to come along in the movies in some time. I wouldn’t mind seeing what else he gets himself in to.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific creatures. Extreme badassery.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much posturing. Denouement lacks excitement.

FAMILY VALUES:  Quite a bit of violence, some brief nudity and sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel agreed to do a cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise in order to secure financing independently for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Act of Killing

The Roommate


 

The Roommate

The backwards on the floor no-look door opening technique rarely works.

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) Leighton Meester, Minka Kelly, Cam Gigandet, Aly Michalka, Danneel Harris, Frances Fisher, Billy Zane, Tomas Arana, Chris Bylsma, Nina Dobrev, Matt Lanter, Katerina Graham, Ryan Doom, Carrie Finklea. Directed by Christian E. Christiansen

 

Ah, sweet college days. The parties, the friendships, the dorms. Who can forget that sort of half-baked roommate, the one who drove you crazy? Of course, there are always the crazy roommates who were really crazy…

Sara (Kelly) is a fresh-faced young fashion student mending from a broken heart and attending a school in sunny Southern California which must look pretty cosmopolitan to a girl off the farm in Iowa. She winds up with Rebecca (Meester) as a roommate. Rebecca comes from good money but she has a lot of problems. She’s an art student with a taste for let’s just say the darker side of art. She also is a bit obsessive when it comes to Sara. She wants Sara to like her. Her and nobody else, to be exact.

This becomes somewhat inconvenient for the other people in Sara’s life, such as the hunky frat boy Stephen (Gigandet) that she’s dating, or the ditzy party girl Tracy (Michalka) she’s friends with. Rebecca goes further and further off the deep end and we know what murky waters that can lead to.

Christiansen has an Oscar nomination to his credit (for a live action short) so we know he has at least some talent and imagination. At times he sets up some fairly innovative camera shots but that really doesn’t help this mess out much. The problems here are myriad and mostly have to do with the writing and the acting.

While not credited anywhere, this seems disturbingly similar to the Jennifer Jason Leigh/Bridget Fonda film Single White Female which is a far better movie than this one. It contains a lot of similar elements to The Roommate but is executed much better. Single White Female at least has the courage of its convictions whereas The Roommate is something of a tease, wanting to titillate with the promise of homoerotic encounters as well as straight-out gore and really, delivering neither.

The cast is attractive enough, although they tend to lean heavily towards CW alumni. Unfortunately, most of the characters they play lean towards the single dimension and other than Rebecca we really don’t get much background whatsoever. In short, we aren’t given a reason to care about any of them. That’s not always a problem with the script; some of the acting seems to be a bit forced while in other cases the performances seem obligatory, as if the actor just wanted to collect the paycheck and move on.

For me there is a point where reboot ends and rip-off begins and that’s pretty much the way the filmmakers went at it here. There’s little or no originality and some of the creepier elements that made Single White Female work so well are absent here. The filmmakers, rather than going for suspense and tension go instead for cheap thrills. Unfortunately, there are far too many movies out there where you can get those. I think the film would have been better served to go for an R rating instead of a PG-13; more gore, more sex might have given the film an edge it doesn’t possess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some very good-looking actors and actresses at work here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A poorly executed rip-off of Single White Female. Could have used some more edge.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence and menace, some sexuality, teen partying and a few choice bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, the poster depicts the Christy Administration building from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. While the photo of the building was legally leased from a stock photo service, the school was concerned that their image might be tarnished by the depiction of their school in the poster of the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a nice feature on the wardrobe department for the film, something that doesn’t get coverage often on home video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on a $16M production budget; the film made back its production costs and a bit more than that during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Lebanon

Whiteout


Kate Beckinsale

This is Kate Beckinsale looking concerned. Later, she'll look perplexed.

(Warner Brothers) Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht, Columbus Short, Tom Skerritt, Alex O’Laughlin, Shawn Doyle, Joel Keller, Jesse Todd, Arthur Holden, Erin Hickock. Directed by Dominic Sena

In space, no one can hear you scream; by the same token, at the South Pole, nobody can see a maniac coming either. At least, not in this movie.

It all starts with a plane full of Soviet Russians circa 1955 transporting a mysterious box over the South Pole to God knows where (Ummm…not to make too fine a point of it, but isn’t the USSR closer to the North Pole? Just asking…) when a gunfight breaks out on the transport plane. As anyone who knows airplanes can tell you, a gunfight on an airplane in midflight is usually a very bad idea. This scene would bear that out – so remember the next time you feel the urge to shoot someone on a plane, no matter how irritating they are.

Fifty years later another body turns up, and like the Russians, this one was killed on purpose but nobody knows who it was or what the body was doing all the way to Hell and gone. U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale) has maybe the cushiest and worst job in the U.S. Marshall service – the most she ever has to deal with are a couple of geologists arguing about whose theory about igneous rocks is more accurate. Now, she has to deal with a murder – and only two days to solve it before the researchers fly north for the winter.

She will be aided by the wise, kindly Dr. Fury (Skerritt) who has nothing to do with Nick Fury other than they both originated in comic books, an FBI agent (Macht) who shows up conveniently, a wisecracking pilot (Short) and umm…other guys. As other bodies start turning up and an investigation of the original crime scene turns up that Russian transport plane from the prologue, it appears that the murders have something to do with whatever was in that mysterious box. What was so valuable that people would be killing for it fifty years later? The Ark of the Covenant maybe?

The movie started out life as a tautly written graphic novel that was way more suspenseful than this mess. The fact that it was shelved for nearly a decade before it was made, then sat on the studio shelf an additional two years after it was made should have told you something; well, obviously you took it to heart because this bombed at the box office in a hailstorm of negative reviews.

Part of the movie’s problem is endemic to the location, which is ironically one of the things that sets this movie apart from other thrillers. The whiteout conditions at the conclusion of the movie make it nearly impossible to tell who’s fighting who, or see what the characters are doing. I’ve seen plenty of movies so underlit that you can’t make out what’s going on; here, the action is obscured in a blizzard of studio snow.

The other problem is that much of the tension that made the graphic novel so enjoyable is largely missing here. Beckinsale, who can be a strong actress when given the right material (see Snow Angels), has been given absolutely nothing to work with here. Oh, there’s a backstory about a near-death experience while working for the Marshall Service in Miami that Haunts our Heroine Even Now, but largely she is given no personality and spends most of the movie looking perplexed, surprised, bundled up beyond recognition in fur jackets or stripping down for a gratuitous shower.

Likewise, most of the other characters are given no personalities and all kind of blend together with the exception of Skerritt’s Doc Fury who comes off a bit like a skinny Wilford Brimley. As such, you’re given no reason to care a whit about any of them, even after the maniac with the pickaxe comes calling.

There were four writers credited with the screenplay, which makes for patchwork screenwriting. This was a difficult graphic novel to translate to the motion picture medium at best for the reasons outlined above, but it basically had no chance with so many fingers in its pie. Hopefully, the studios and producer Joel Silver will have learned a lesson; avoid action sequences in a snowstorm and focus on character development if you want the suspense to really go off the scale and in the future, try to inject a little suspense into a suspense movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Kate Beckinsale is a beautiful woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a lot of suspense and quite frankly some of the action is hard to see.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence but not to excess, some rather grisly images and a bit of nudity. Probably not for the kids, unless they’re crazy mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lake Manitoba exterior location was occasionally colder than the South Pole it was doubling for.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Expendables