Tuesday, January 5, 2016

New Year's Resolutions: Overlooked

Continuing my slate-clearing to begin 2016 with a bang, here is a selection of mini-reviews of classic and classic adjacent genre flicks that I have watched but unfortunately failed to cover over the past few months.

Escape From New York

Year: 1981
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Renowned criminal Snake Plissken is coerced into rescuing the president from the island of Manhattan, which has been converted into a prison in the distant future of 1997.

Now, here’s a film that’ll put hair on your chest. If you squeezed all the testosterone out of every pituitary gland in the world, Escape From New York would put it in a glass and drink it for breakfast. A towering tribute to the American testicle, Escape From New York is essentially the U.S. translation of the Mad Max ethos (with all the musky homoeroticism that that implies).

Depicting a prison state populated exclusively by men and the handful of objects that other, lesser beings know as women, Escape From New York indulges in excess of the highest caliber in the costuming, production design, and performance. On paper, the film’s action would also join that list, but unfortunately this leads us directly into the most fatal flaw of the film. Although there are plenty of exciting ideas crammed into the script (ninja stars, cab chases around bridge minefields, etc.), much of the actual excitement is choked out by the films all too casual approach to their execution.

John Carpenter as a director likes to pace his films as deliberately as possible, which works for a ponderous fablistic slasher or a relentless experiment in Arctic isolation. However, when that tendency is transplanted into the action genre, everything feels like it’s playing at half speed. Car chases, fistfights, and sudden attacks are staged about the same as a character making a sandwich. They play out at a snail’s pace, which makes it awfully difficult to care about the tremendously operatic plot beats that drive them.

As a cheesy, macho ham sandwich, EFNY is worth a watch. However, it’s a Mad Max world with a Calm Max execution.

Rating: 6/10

The Shining

Year: 1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
Run Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A man gets a job as a winter caretaker for the secluded Overlook Hotel. When he and his family are snowed in, the haunted building starts to drive him crazy.

By now, any horror fan has probably heard that Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his bestselling novel. For good reason, too. His thinly veiled tale of a father struggling to redeem himself while backsliding into his alcoholism is deeply personal and utterly obliterated by Kubrick’s standoffish direction and casting of the permanently deranged Jack Nicholson. But while it’s true that Kubrick’s Shining is a downright abysmal adaptation of its source novel, the things that make it a classic are completely, exclusively different from what made the book a classic. Taken as two separate works, one a spine-tingling allegory and the other as a chilly mood piece, both Shinings have a place in the canon of classic horror history.

This incarnation of The Shining is certainly style over substance, but oh what a style it is. This is perhaps the film where Kubrick’s habitually precise style and the content work best. His penchant for lengthy Steadicam shots pulls you into the preternaturally still world our characters are trapped in, and the smooth gliding of his frame evokes a sinister presence keeping watch over our characters. His camera really drives home the sheer enormity of the Overlook, dwarfing its subject every chance it gets. There’s an occasional bit of ego wanking (was it absolutely necessary to zoom in on the cook’s apartment for six minutes?), but for the most part – and in a 146 minute film, it’s ALL the most part – it clicks.

And another thing. If you show me a 1980 film with a more exquisite sound design than The Shining, I will cry tears of gratitude from my ears. Listening to The Shining in cranked-up surround sound is the best burst eardrum you’ll ever have, with its atonal jangling score careening into common household noises expanded to unearthly proportions. It’s like the Devil’s white noise machine.

Last but not least, we have the actors. Kubrick’s casts tend to be largely incidental, but here they are integral cogs in the film’s mechanism. Shelley Duvall is the standout as the shrill, mousy wife, giving such irritating nuance to the role that you can begin to understand why the hell her character might continue to be married to the professionally psychotic Jack Nicholson. Naturally, he too inhabits his role with aplomb, but even young Danny Lloyd (as their son Danny) is unbearably terrifying, giving maybe the best child performance of the decade. And the 80’swere nothing if not crawling with child performers.

So no, The Shining ain’t no Stephen King movie, but it’s certainly worth its reputation. Just make sure you empty your bladder before sitting down to watch it.

Rating: 8/10

Trick 'r Treat

Year: 2007
Director: Mike Dougherty
Cast: Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A variety of stories play out in a small town on Halloween night, in which people are punished for not respecting the traditions and rituals of Halloween.

I’ve seen my share of horror anthologies, so please don’t take it lightly when I say that Trick ‘r Treat is one of the best. Not only does it integrate its distinct stories in a colorful, creative way, it is actually pretty great. Not content to merely avoid being unwatchable crap (something many anthologies flagrantly fail to do), Trick ‘r Treat is genuinely well-directed, by first-timer Mike Dougherty (who has since lent his holiday fever to the largely charming Krampus).

Combining traditional Halloween imagery with a uniquely spooky atmosphere, Dougherty has birthed a series of unforgettable shots, my favorite being the lights from jack-o-lanterns flickering in the fog as children vanish one by one. Trick ‘r Treat manages to sustain its campfire tale atmosphere, even during the more overtly silly vignettes, including an excellently timed Dylan Baker tale.

Embracing and inverting typical horror tropes, Trick ‘r Treat is a film that truly loves Halloween rather than just taking place on the holiday as a gimmick. Trick ‘r Treat wants to marry Halloween and massage its feet for the rest of its life, and it shows. This spirit can e felt in the film’s major contribution to popular culture, the bag-headed Sam, a trick or treating spirit of holiday vengeance with a singularly prepossessing design. Just like Sam, Trick ‘r Treat is fun, spooky, and oh so stylish. It should earn an immediate spot in everybody’s October screening list.

Rating: 8/10

Red Dragon

Year: 2002
Director: Brett Ratner
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Will Graham must enlist the help of his imprisoned ex-partner, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to capture a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy.

Red Dragon is a pointless, pointless movie. An essential remake of Michael Mann’s Manhunter (also based on the Thomas Harris crime novel Red Dragon), Red Dragon was a cash-in on the only remaining Hannibal Lecter property that hadn’t had Anthony Hopkins crudely grafted onto it yet. Although it boasts Ralph Fiennes in an electrifying villainous role, the rest of the film is a wan redo of Silence of the Lambs from the structure down to the production design details, glossing over its own story in order to properly service its connection to the Oscar-winning (read: box office smashing) property.

In and of itself, Red Dragon is a competent, adequate film, but there’s a reason that when looking through my notes, all I can find is ralph Fiennes comments. The relationship between Hopkins and Edward Norton’s Graham is a malnourished trifle, a flaxen imitation of Jodie Foster’s chemistry that refuses to engage with the mountains of readily available backstory that could actually make sense of their alleged connection.

This film is worth seeing for the Tooth Fairy alone. If you pretend that the actual A-story is just the commercial breaks between a nuanced, deranged, transformative character study full of blazing twists and turns, it’s completely palatable. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a bust. It’s less operatically indulgent than the worst Hopkins Lecter film (Ridley Scott’s Hannibal), but it’s even less interesting for it.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1433
Reviews In This Series
The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)
Hannibal (Scott, 2001)
Red Dragon (Ratner, 2002)


  1. Escape: I've warmed to Escape From New York over the years, to the extent I presently consider it a great (albeit flawed) entry into the grand continuum of 80s badass action. Still, if there's one thing I've learned from watching (at this point) almost every last one of JC's films, it's that he's good at mood, character, scares, and many, many wonderful still tableaux--and he is barely adequate at staging actual action. EFNY is a movie I wouldn't mind seeing remade with something resembling a real budget and by someone who is better at action. I was told that at least the former half of that equation was satisfied in Escape From L.A., and if you thought EFNY is marginal... well, at the risk of spoiling a forthcoming review, just don't watch EFLA. Maybe just the ending of EFLA.

    Shining: The titular shining bothers the hell out of me, and the ghosts that let Jack out of the cupboard is about a half dozen bridges too far. Still a great movie--in many ways the easiest-going Kubrick picture, other than perhaps The Killing--and I watch it about once every couple of years.

    Red Dragon: I think I'm one of the few people on Earth who prefer Brett Ratner's masterpiece (the Ratnerpiece?) to Manhunter. I mean, yeah, the Graham/Lecter stuff isn't that great (iirc, it's barely present in the novel in the first place), but apparently thinking that bona fide super-actor Ralph Fiennes is better as Dolarhyde than Tom freaking Noonan and his barely-inflected turn in the same role makes me some kind of square, or possibly an actual monster. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills sometimes.

    I still need to watch Trick 'r Treat. (Gosh, I hate the apostrophe in that name.)

    1. Note for clarity's sake: Ratnerpieces are to be judged on a lesser scale than other directors' masterpieces.

    2. I'm so glad to hear I'm not crazy re: EFNY. The level to which the action was muddled and uncomfortable was truly staggering.

      I'm really not a fan of Kubrick at all, but I find a lot to love in The Shining.

      To be fair, I haven't seen Manhunter yet, though I intend on doing so soon.

      And I want to murder that apostrophe.