THE RAVEN (1963)

July 5, 2014

raven Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been more than 50 years since this one was released, so it seems a good time to offer up some thoughts and observations. Let’s start with the fact that you probably read Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” in high school. Director Roger Corman and writer Richard Matheson take Poe’s work as a starting point in a most unique story of their own.

If you aren’t familiar with Roger Corman, he is one of the most prolific and entertaining “B” movie makers of all time. His writer here, Mr. Matheson, is best known for his work on numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone“. Poe – Matheson – Corman would be enough, but we also get Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court and a young and not yet well known Jack Nicholson. Price is always a treat to watch (especially in horror films), Lorre appeared in 3 of the greatest movies of all-time (M, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca), Karloff is the master of monster (and much more), Ms Court was one of the first stars of Hammer Films, and of course, Nicholson (fresh-faced here) went on to become one of the most successful actors in movie history.

Price, Karloff, Lorre and Nicholson offer up four of the most unique and recognizable voices ever heard in movies, and they each partake in the fun provided by Corman here. Yes, I said fun. This is almost slapstick comedy, and at a minimum, it’s a parody of the much darker series of Poe films. If you consider it as an influence of the 1960’s “Batman” TV series, you wouldn’t be wrong. Even the music (heavy on the tuba) has an air of comedy.

Watching Peter Lorre as a matador is pretty funny, as is Nicholson as the frenetic stagecoach driver.  Some of the back-and-forth with Lorre and Nicholson as father and son is clearly ad-libbed, but the classic comedic sequence occurs when Price and Karloff take their wizardry duel to the death and turn it into a special effects highlight reel.

This may be the only time you hear the phrase “precious viper” used to describe a woman, and if that, combined with all of the above reasons, isn’t enough to motivate you to seek this one out, then maybe you will never discover why so many adore the films of Roger Corman. Compared with films of today, this style is nevermore.

watch the trailer:


THE SHINING (1980) revisited

January 29, 2013

shining Greetings again from the darkness. One of the keys to my love of cinema is what I term the “three D’s” – Dispute, Discussion and Debate.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick directed only eleven feature films, each a perfect fit for the “three D’s”.  Now combine Kubrick with renowned author Stephen King, and the result is 33 years (and counting) of ongoing dispute, discussion and debate.  The Shining is considered one of the best horror films of all-time and limitless in its ability to entertain … even after the closing credits.

Kubrick and his co-writer, novelist Diane Johnson, took the already twisted source material and delivered a film focused more on the downward spiral towards madness than King’s supernatural story.  Sure Kubrick gives us ghosts (Lloyd the bartender, Grady the butler, the two girls and the women of Room 237), but the bulk of time is spent watching the three members of the Torrance family each breakdown in their own special manner.

shining7 The ambiguities of the story are intensified on the closing shot of the 1921 photograph featuring the likeness of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). The various interpretations over the years have only added to the cult status and overall perplexity associated with this masterpiece.  The historic Texas Theatre in Dallas presented a 35 mm print this past weekend and it was a thrill to once again watch the movie on the big screen with a full house.

There are so many elements that elevate this one above most horror films. The claustrophobic feel that comes with an isolated hotel snowed off from society is complimented by a cast of actors who fully commit to what must have appeared ludicrous on the script pages.  Jack Nicholson was at the peak of the acting profession (just a few years after Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and really creeps us out with his aggressive descent into insanity.  Shelley Duvall survived an actor’s nightmare during filming as Kubrick was relentless in his efforts to make sure she shining5was constantly hysterical and on the verge of tears.  Yet, she never fails in convincing us that she is frantically grasping for sanity as she works to save herself and her son.  Despite having no previous acting experience, six year old Danny Lloyd won the role of Danny, who is blessed/cursed with “the shining” – a psychic ability to see the past and the future.

Over the years, conclusions have been reached that Kubrick was making a statement on topics ranging from the slaughter of Native Americans, the Holocaust, the supernatural, alcoholism, and the hollow institution known as family. Regardless of your interpretation, it’s impressive that a horror film can generate such divisive thoughts. Even more impressive is how the movie sucks you in with a methodical pace and  deliberate build-up to a wild ending … an ending missing a key hospital scene that was cut by Kubrick AFTER the film was initially released.

Known as The Overlook Hotel in the movie, it’s really a conglomeration of many different hotels. The exterior shots are of Timberlake Lodge in Oregon.  Much of the interior, including the Colorado room where Jack writes, is patterned after Ahwahanee Lodge in Yosemite, though the red bathroom is courtesy of the Arizona Biltmore (and Frank Lloyd Wright).  The giant set was built shining3in England and included the shrubbery maze that is front and center come climax time.  Stephen King was inspired to write the story after staying at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. In 1997, he personally oversaw a TV mini-series that stayed true to his original story … and was filmed at The Stanley.

Scatman Crothers is best known as a musician and composer, but immediately became well respected for his role as Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef.  The scene where he discusses the meaning of “the shining” with Danny became infamous for the 148 takes demanded by Kubrick. His penchant for multiple takes nearly broke the actors and the crew, but most since then have acknowledged the grueling approach provided the edge needed for the dramatic effects seen in the movie.

Some other interesting aspects of the movie include the numerous “classic lines” such as Nicholson’s ad-libbed “Here’s Johnny!” and “Little Pig, Little Pig”; the controversial line from Grady (Philip Stone) stating Torrance has “always been the caretaker”; Torrance’s exchange with Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel) when he calls alcohol the “white man’s burden”.  It’s also interesting shining2to note that the visual of the two girls was influenced by Diane Arbus’ famous photograph.  Ask yourself; prior to seeing this movie, would you have recognized REDRUM?  Since this was in the days before computers, a secretary spent months typing up (yes on a typewriter) the hundreds of pages that read “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”.  In the Gold Room party scene, that’s 17 year old Vivian Kubrick (daughter of Stanley) smoking a cigarette while sitting on the sofa. And a special note to my fellow baseball lovers, Shelley Duvall whacks Nicholson with a Carl Yastrzemski model Louisville slugger.  Of course, Stephen King is a lifelong Red Sox fan, so this was a nice touch.

It’s understandable if you consider the movie more disturbing than horrifying. Kubrick would take that as a compliment.  As for the complexities and contradictions, nothing is more frightening than the unexplained and the unreasonable. Without an obvious roadmap to a tidy conclusion, Kubrick keeps us guessing and leaves us uncomfortable by what we have seen. Maybe most remarkable is the incredible way this movie impacts you EVERY TIME you watch.  This is quite an accomplishment for the horror genre, since most depend on visual tricks, cheap scares and over the top gore.  If you are waiting for more, Stephen King is scheduled to release “Dr. Sleep”, which is the story of an adult Danny (no word on whether Tony is with him) who now works with those who share “the shining”.  Just don’t expect Danny Lloyd to reprise his childhood role.  He hasn’t acted in over 30 years and is enjoying his career as a science teacher.

check out Danny’s big wheel scene:

TMI (3-1-12)

March 1, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)


 MERYL STREEP, with her record 17th nomination, earned a third acting Oscar this year.  Only Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman, and Walter Brennan won as many acting Oscars, and only Katharine Hepburn won more, with four. At 62, Streep becomes the fourth oldest person to win in this category, behind only 80-year-old Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989), 74-year-old Hepburn (On Golden Pond, 1981), and 63-year-old Marie Dressler (Min and Bill, 1930).

4 – Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory 1933, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 1967, The Lion in Winter 1968, On Golden Pond 1981)

3 – Meryl Streep (Kramer vs Kramer 1979, Sophie’s Choice 1982, The Iron Lady 2011)

3 – Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight 1944, Anastasia 1956, Murder on the Orient Express 1974)

3 – Walter Brennan (Come and Get it 1936, Kentucky 1939, The Westerner 1940)

3 – Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975, Terms of Endearment 1983, As Good as it Gets 1997)


CHINATOWN (1974) revisited

May 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The latest of the monthly 1970’s film screenings hosted by Dallas Film Society and The Dallas Morning News was the classic Chinatown.   It was shocking to see 35-40% of the hands go up when host Chris Vognar asked how many had never seen the film.  I felt a combination of guilt, pride and envy since my viewings number approximately 15 or 16, not counting “pit stops” while channel surfing.  This is truly a classic film that should be seen by all lovers of movies.

This is a chance to see the work of three film greats at their absolute peak: Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski (director) and Robert Towne (writer).  I have previously discussed Nicholson’s work in the 70’s (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail,Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  He is so confident and assured and expert in his manner and delivery.  It is so much fun to watch the perfect actor in the perfect role.  Regardless of what you may think of Roman Polanski the man, he is unquestionably an excellent director (Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer).  His visual flair is on full display with cars, wardrobe, colors, and camera angles.  It is obvious he adores the source material.  Robert Towne has some terrific screenplays on his resume (The Last Detail, Shampoo), but none better than this one.  Along with Network (Paddy Chayefsky), this is one of my two favorite screenplays of all-time.  It is outstanding!

 Some people refer to this as “the Nose movie”, thanks to the scene where Polanski, in a cameo as a tough guy, teaches Nicholson a lesson about sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. What I love about the story and the movie is that we are along with Gittes (Nicholson) for the whole thing.  There are no shortcuts … no narrators … no flashbacks … we get to solve the mysteries right along with him.  Too many movies make it easy for the viewer.  I prefer to work a little.  And trust me, this one makes you work.  Is it a whodunit?  Is it a kidnapping?  Is it a political power play for control of water?  Is it just outright corruption?  The answer is YES to all of these!

 If you have seen it before, watch it again and pay attention to the absolutely perfect mood score from Jerry Goldsmith.  Check out the wardrobe – the number of suits worn by Nicholson is crazy.  The same holds true for Faye Dunaway’s dresses.  Pay attention to the multiple “eye” references right up to the final two … Dunaway in the car and John Huston shielding his “granddaughter” from the grisly scene.  You may have missed the supporting work from John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Rance Howard (Ron’s dad), Burt Young (Paulie in Rocky) and James Hong.  James Hong?  If you are a “Seinfeld” fan, you’ll recognize him from the Chinese Restaurant scene where he pages “Cartwright”.  Especially pay attention to the powerful performance of John Huston as Noah Cross.  And no matter how many times you have watched it, the “nose” scene will still make you cringe.

If you have never seen the film, I urge you to set aside some time to watch this classic.  Don’t allow yourself to be distracted.  Take it all in and then … “Forget it Jake.  It’s Chinatown.

THE LAST DETAIL (1973) revisited

March 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Last evening I attended the second film in the monthly 1970’s series being presented by the Dallas Film Society, Landmark Magnolia Theatre and Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.  This one happens to be one of my all-time favorites and one that seems to have been forgotten by many … THE LAST DETAIL.

It would be easy enough to understand how the film has drifted into oblivion and become just another one of the many fine films that were born during an incredibly prolific and ground-breaking era, if not for these factors:

1. It received 3 Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson); Best Supporting Actor (Randy Quaid); Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Towne)

2. It features what may be Jack Nicholson’s finest performance, and certainly one of his top 5.

3. The screenplay was written by the great Robert Towne from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan

4. The film was directed by the beloved (but troubled) Hal Ashby, who had a remarkable string of films that garnered a very faithful following

5. Its humor and poignancy hold up very well today as evidenced by last night’s audience response

 Admittedly, I have always viewed this as a “Guy’s movie” – one of those movies that guys love to quote and girls love to hate.  The audience last night was at least one-third female and the overall response was very strong, especially from those who had not previously seen the movie.  Sure, there was one lady who called the film “despicable”, but as Mr. Vognar pointed out, she was probably bringing her own values and morals into the story. 

To do that is to miss the point entirely.  No denying, there is an enormous amount of booze, fighting, shoplifting, prostitution and swearing.  Oh my, the amount and severity of swearing never ceases to amaze. What’s important to note, and has been stated by Mr. Towne on numerous occasions, these are lifelong military men who feel trapped and powerless most of their waking hours.  The swearing and bravado serve as their defense mechanism … their last grasp of independence. 

Though I have seen the film numerous times over the years, I was struck by two things last night.  First, Randy Quaid’s performance brings an incredible amount of humanity and sympathy to a character that demanded a certain approach.  Many actors would have over-played it, but 22 year old Quaid’s baby-face works magic in the scenes where we see the two hard-nosed sailors begin to soften their stance.  Second, Otis Young as Mulhall showed much more range than I had remembered.  He is the perfect centerpiece between Nicholson and Quaid.  As a side note, this was Gilda Radner‘s big screen debut and a couple of years before the birth of Saturday Night Live.

 A quick note on Nicholson.  This is a far different Nicholson than what we have seen recently in The Bucket List or Something’s Gotta Give.  He was coming off a star-making turn in Five Easy Pieces and was on his way to Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This is a great actor at his absolute peak.  Sure, there is the infamous “I am the bleepity-bleep Shore Patrol” outburst in the bar, but more impressive are his scenes on the trains, or at the picnic.  Great stuff.

Lastly, I’ll mention director Hal Ashby.  His string of fabulous “little” films include Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There … each quirky, but incredibly insightful, and proof of just what a fine filmmaker he was.

Next month’s screening is the political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View.  It was directed by Alan Pakula and stars Warren Beatty.  For all you youngsters, there was a time when Warren Beatty was Hollywood royalty and not just the old guy who hangs around Annette Bening.


December 19, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. How about a little effort from the Hollywood folks? Writer/Director James L Brooks and Jack Nicholson have teamed up for three far superior films prior to this. Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As it Gets are all insightful dramadies that bring real life into relationships. This one is billed as a Rom-Com, but the romance is distant and lame, and the comedy is all but non-existent.

The very talented Paul Rudd plays George, son of Charles (Nicholson) who is the target of a federal investigation after his father sets him up by falsifying corporate financial documents. The problem is George is a really nice, honest guy and Charles is a lying scumbag who would throw his son to the federal wolves.

In a seemingly unrelated story, Reece Witherspoon plays Lisa, a very talented softball player with an incredible track record and evidently serious skills. She gets cut from the Olympic team because of her advancing age (she will be 31 at the next Olympics). Lisa is dating Matty, played by Owen Wilson. Matty is a $14 million per year major league baseball player, who is also a player off the field.

Everyone in this story is so very nice, but screwed up in their own way. That’s actually a hopeful start. So one thing leads to another and George falls for Lisa. Lisa moves in with Matty, who lives in the Charles’ building. Lisa then moves out. George is always there for Lisa while her life is in shambles. George’s life is in shambles too, but all he cares about is Lisa. Matty cares a lot about Matty. Any guess how this ends up? Of course you know. This script is not built for surprises. Or romance. Or comedy.

The bulk of what comedy there is comes from a very pregnant Kathryn Hahn as Anne, whose life is also a bit of a mess. She is an unmarried, pregnant assistant to George, who worries about him, her and everything … but she has such a big heart that she bakes and labels multiple dinners for George.

Anyway … the best part of the film is that we never get subjected to watching Owen Wilson throwing a pitch or Reese Witherspoon actually playing softball. There is so much talent associated with this film, but it definitely proves the point that the heart of a film is not in the direction or the acting, but in the script. For a similar story line, but far superior film, go re-watch When Harry Met Sally for the eighteenth time. It has comedy and romance and a very worthy script.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are related to one of the stars and they are paying for your ticket OR you just want to see Owen Wilson’s very cool bachelor pad.

SKIP THIS MOVIE: for any reason not listed in the above “See this movie”