Showing posts with label alfred hitchcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label alfred hitchcock. Show all posts

Sep 24, 2020

FOUR FROM HITCHCOCK

Throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock directed 55 feature films, along with numerous shorts and documentaries. That’s not a bad haul, nor a bad legacy to leave behind to the world. Having said that, even the most ardent film fan couldn’t possibly name you half of his films in total. In fact, if you look at his filmography starting from the beginning, it would take you seventeen films before arriving at 1935’s The 39 Steps, really the first film, chronologically, that still enjoys discussion to this day. I’m not picking on Hitchcock, though – this is more just a reminder of the reality. Not a single director has a flawless track record when it comes to output (and if the names Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino just flashed in your mind as a challenge to that, I’m laughing at you). But by now, Hitchcock has reached legendary status, and not just from the strong crop of films he left behind: there’s his larger than life persona as a morbid spokesman for his work; there’s his reputation for being a hard-nosed director unwilling to compromise his vision; and there’s also his penchant for victimizing his cast for reasons both professional and personal. 

Because of his infamy, he’s achieved mythic status, and as such, we assume everything he touched shocked audiences, changed cinema, and left an indelible mark. Not quite. If you asked that same film fan from before to name ten Hitchcock films, undoubtedly these four titles would be among them: Rear WindowVertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. They are sacrosanct, legendary, backbones of their respective genres, and sterling examples of a director fully in control of his talents and resources. 

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is in the midst of recuperating from a broken ankle and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Sheer boredom leads him to watching his neighbors across his apartment complex’s shared courtyard, keeping up to date on the various comings, goings, and personal dramas unfolding in everyone’s tiny homes. It’s through this passive observing that L.B. begins to suspect that one particular neighbor across the way may have murdered his wife. With the assistance of his “girlfriend” Lisa (Grace Kelly), who L.B. uses as a mobile quasi-avatar, they investigate to see if L.B. really does live across the courtyard from a murderer.

Like the other films in this set, Rear Window would inadvertently create an oft visited trope in genre cinema going forward, either through presentation or in conception – in this case, the idea of the voyeur, and of large open windows serving as movie screens that depict the actions of those inside their own bubble, generally unaware of their being watched…or sometimes being complicit in their “performances.” John Carpenter would riff on this concept with a clever reversal in his 1980 television movie Someone’sWatching Me! with Lauren Hutton and soon to be wife/ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau. Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin, who would eventually helm the extremely undervalued Psycho II, would make a road-set homage with Road Games with Stacy Keach alongside a post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh). Finally, following his accident that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, Christopher Reeve would produce and star in a Rear Window remake in the late ‘90s for ABC, with Daryl Hannah taking on the Grace Kelly role of the adventurous troublemaker. It was…fine. Also like the other films in this set, Rear Window is one of many Hitchcock films that sees a pretty blonde girl (Hitch’s fave) really going above and beyond to make an impotent or uninterested man commit to her beyond mere petty flirtations and casual trysts. With L.B. prone and imprisoned in his wheelchair, he’s powerless to stop Lisa as she decides to take full control of the situation and break into the suspected murderer’s apartment in order to validate L.B.’s beliefs – and this after the film opens with Lisa basically nagging L.B. to marry her, which he declines with reasoning that makes the very concept sound entirely objectionable despite the fact that he’s twenty years older, has the physique of a snapped rubber band, and he’d be incredibly lucky to have her.

A near-death experience leaves former police detective John Ferguson (a returning Stewart) with acrophobia, a debilitating fear of heights, and very retired. An old acquittance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires him out of the blue to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who believes that she’s the reincarnation of another deceased woman named Carlotta. Being we’re in Hitchcock territory, after Ferguson begins his reconnaissance, it doesn’t take long for him to discover, whether or not Elster’s beliefs have any merit, that he’s definitely not on a routine job. And he couldn’t possibly have anticipated how obsessed with Madeleine he would become.

At 130 minutes, Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s longer features, and most of that running time is filled with heavy exposition and twisting/turning developments that, at times, feel almost more appropriate for a James Bond caper mixed with brooding noir. Hitchcock once again reigns over his use of cinematography to deeply unsettle his audience, using camera tricks and extreme points of view to take away our balance and feeling of stability. The opening scene has Stewart’s Ferguson hanging for dear life from the top of a very tall building as the gutter he’s grasping slowly tears off the wall, and as a nearby officer reaches down to help him, the poor schlub slips and plummets to his death – in just one sequence, both Ferguson and the audience confront the ultimate fear: not just impending death, but our front-row view of our only salvation being whisked away.


Poor Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a bunch of cash in hopes of buying the domestic freedom of her secret beau, Sam (John Gavin), and blows town. After stopping at a desolate roadside motel, she leaves the worst Yelp review in Bates Motel history, causing perfectionist Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to respond in…let’s call it an exaggerated manner.

Look, no one needs the plot breakdown of Psycho; considering it’s widely considered Hitchcock’s crowning achievement as a director (these things are subject to opinion, of course, but…it is), Psycho is a masterclass in filmmaking in just about every way – from expert casting (Martin Balsam!) to maximizing low budget filmmaking (the crew was almost entirely comprised of Alfred Hitchcock Presents personnel) to wrenching tension out of every scene through the use of slow-moving cinematography and off-putting angles. Psycho should be taught in film classes exclusively for its use of the camera. There’s the slow opening push into Marion and Sam’s hotel room window (which, while possibly borrowed from 1955’s Dementia aka Daughter of Horror, is still expertly crafted), and obviously there’s also that whole shower-scene thing, but my favorite shot comes as the camera slowly pushes in on Norman standing by the side of the swamp and listening in the dark as Sam calls out for him back at the motel. It’s chilling and perfectly engineered. Honestly, I could go on and on about the 1960 classic that inspired four sequels, a (failed) television show, a remake, another successful television show, the next generation of filmmakers (Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Richard Franklin, Brad Anderson), and a perpetual mark on the genre, not to mention the permanent ruination of the sense of security one feels while taking a shower in a motel room…but we all know this already. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano improve the well written source material in every way. Stefano’s screenplay changes Norman Bates from a monstrous killer to a sympathetic figure, and Hitchcock had the forward-thinking idea of casting someone with charming, boy-next-door features instead of someone who more closely matched the unsightly, stocky, balding, and frustrated virgin present in the novel. Even the shower scene is a complete rebuilding, in which Marion Crane’s demise is limited to a few sentences: “Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher's knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

Loosely based on the 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Hitchcock’s adaption depicts a world being overtaken by angry hordes of birds, atypically flocking together in every species to wage an unexplained revenge against mankind – presumably for being the earth-raping assholes we always are. One of many folks caught in the swarm are Melanie (Tippi Hedren), who’s attempting to charm her way into the life of Mitch (Rod Taylor), who lives in an isolated coastal home. The attacks from the bloodthirsty birds increasingly mount until they find themselves trapped in Rod’s house and fending off the birds that manage to find their way in. Who will survive, and what will be pecked from them?

Truth be told, and in spite of its (deserved) reputation, The Birds is a mixed bag. As a youngin’ obsessed with JAWS and all the animals-run-amok films that it introduced me to, I used to consider The Birds my favorite Hitchcock film, but later viewings re-introduced me to a kind of silly film that’s actually at its best when the birds aren’t on screen (school playground scene notwithstanding, because that’s the kind of thing Hitchcock did so well). However, once the opticals of marauding flocks are overlain into the sky and birds both real and dummy are being thrown into Tippi Hedren’s face, it all seems pretty nonsensical. It’s also hard to mentally dismiss how much Hitchcock mistreated Hedren on set, which was the stuff of Hollywood legend for years before HBO’s The Girl made it mainstream knowledge in the earliest beginnings of the #MeToo movement.

Alfred Hitchcock is part of cinema history, taught in universities and film schools, still the subject of modern documentaries like the Psycho-deconstructing 78/52, and conjured in the modern descriptor “Hitchcockian.” The four films above are the top reasons why. Even if Hitchcock had directed four or four hundred films throughout his life, the merits alone of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds would’ve been more than enough to secure his legacy. 

Nov 14, 2019

ROAD GAMES (1981)


Director Richard Franklin was known in his native homeland of Australia as “Australia’s Hitchcock,” and that’s not because he was a filmmaker who made notable genre fare, but because, like another noted genre filmmaker, Brian De Palma, Franklin was fascinated by Hitchcock’s techniques and sensibilities and adopted them into his own work. His most direct tie to Hitchcock was his helming of Psycho 2, a belated sequel following 18 years after Hitchcock’s landmark horror shocker. A few years later, Franklin would take a script by well-known Australian screenwriter Everett de Roche (Razorback) and bring it to life as a Rear Window-meets-road-movie hybrid, imbuing it with Hitchcock’s famous themes of paranoia and isolation, along with his use of dark humor and quirky supporting characters.

Road Games gets mentioned a lot when notable 1980s horror titles are being rattled off, especially when that conversation is based around all the horror flicks Jamie Lee Curtis did in her youth to earn the moniker “Scream Queen,” but not only is she not present in a majority of the film, the horror is actually toned down quite a bit in favor of thrills, mystery, and black humor. And despite Road Games being an Australian production which happens to feature some American actors, along with being an obvious homage to Hitchcock, the film also fits right in with ’70s American cinema, unofficially known as the paranoid thriller era. Films like The Conversation, The French Connection, Marathon Man, and more were direct results of the Nixon/Watergate scandal, and the cinematic response was one that would also soon be revitalized by The X-Files, whittled down into one core lesson: trust no one. 


The reason Road Games fits in well with this movement is that for a good portion of the film, Stacy Keach’s Quid is doing nothing more than following his paranoid instincts on what he may have witnessed. It’s not a slam dunk for him from the beginning; he’s not convinced that he’s witnessed anything nefarious, or if he is convinced, he doesn’t have enough evidence to back it up. What he does figure out pretty quickly is that law officials are no help, and all the blokes and sheilas who overhear his frantic demands for help on the bar payphone are not only not overly concerned, but they look upon him with suspicion. There’s an indirect subplot involving a worker’s strike going on in Australia which has resulted in meat becoming scarce, but also leaving natives incredibly wary of people they don’t know. Obviously this doesn’t help matters — not only is Quid American, but he’s a long-haul truck who happens to have a trailer full of meat. Simply put, no one is eager to help him.

Where Road Games falters is with its pace. The first act unloads at a purposeful but ever-intriguing pace. Through Quid’s observations, we “meet” all the other characters on the road around him, and this isn’t for throwaway comedy, but because we will cross paths with these characters again later. It’s through this observational behavior (because what else is there to do on the road besides stare straight ahead and talk to a dingo?) that Quid thinks he may have witnessed a murder — or, at least, a potential murder. Quid fixates on the maybe-killer (Grant Page), who will be personified by his dirty black hippie van for most of the film. It’s when we’re approaching the middle of the second act, after Jamie Lee has hitched Quid for a ride (her nickname is “Hitch” throughout — which serves two purposes: character nickname and Hitchcock homage), where the pace starts to slow. Keach and Curtis have reasonably good on-screen chemistry, and watching them get to know each other is charming, but once Hitch mysteriously vanishes, and Quid begins to question what’s really going on is when Road Games slows to a near halt. After having built such good will with the audience, and provided them with reasons to be as intrigued with the plot as Quid is with that dirty green van, the air is let out of all the goings-on; even as Road Games struggles to get back on track, and it eventually does, too much time is spent waiting for that to happen.


Still, what allows Road Games to speed across the finish line as an overall entertaining contribution to the genre is its identity, helped by the quirky sensibilities of Richard Franklin. Had Road Games been just another slasher flick, but plagued with the same second-act slowdown, it would be just a footnote in the genre timeline. Even though Franklin’s intent was to homage one of the horror greats using an open-road concept, it’s his likeness — far less known to American audiences — that make Road Games a film that’s not willing to be outright dismissed. It’s a flawed film for sure, and some viewers might not have the patience to spend most of their time watching a man riding around in the cab of a truck, but there’s a reason why Road Games has stuck around for so long. Equal measures of mystery, thrills, intrigue, and black humor make Road Games stand out from the rest of its ’80s colleagues, even if it doesn’t play as well as some of them.

Road Games is an offbeat title and definitely not for everyone. The Hitchcock flair is certainly present, both in construction and realization, but also in its usage of black comedy. Though its considered one of the many titles that made Jamie Lee Curtis a “Scream Queen,” her appearance lasts no more than 25 minutes, leaving Keach to carry most of the screen time. (Okay, him and his dingo.) Its pace might be too glacial for some, and its odd tone may turn off those more used to traditional genre fare, but there’s something undeniably quirky about Road Games that makes it easily watchable. 


Sep 11, 2019

SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME! (1978)


Someone’s Watching Me! is a very different kind of Carpenter film — one that lands squarely in thriller territory; it features absolutely no blood and just a handful of non-squeamish violent scenes. When Halloween was released, film critic Roger Ebert gave it a very favorable review, comparing it to Psycho, so it’s appropriate that Someone’s Watching Me! slyly plays around with Hitchcock conventions by fashioning a sort of reverse-Rear Window: instead of a home-bound city dweller using a pair of binoculars to spy on his neighbors in the apartment building across the courtyard and discovering one of them might be a murderer, Lauren Hutton’s Leigh is a home-bound city dweller being spied on by someone living in the high-rise building across the street — someone who watches her with a high-powered telescope, and who begins stalking her by leaving gifts, making threatening phone calls, and entering her apartment — all in an effort to drive her crazy before trying to kill her and staging her suicide.


Much of Someone’s Watching Me! is a one-woman show, with Hutton (who is still acting today, and seen as recently as Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty) spending most of her screen time alone in her apartment having conversations with herself as she deals with the increasingly strange attention from her anonymous neighbor. For the most part, Hutton shoulders this burden well, although some of the dialogue Carpenter wrote for her, when heard with modern ears, can sometimes be corny, or the least bit…off color. (There’s a joke in there somewhere about her being raped by midgets and it makes me wince every time I hear it.)

Frequent Carpenter collaborator and one-time wife, Adrienne Barbeau, is also along for the ride, playing the spunky sidekick who helps move the plot along into more dangerous territory. Notably, Carpenter writes her character, Sophie, as a lesbian; refreshingly, this never enters into the plot, and never becomes notable beyond the one-time mention, which helps to make things feel just a bit more realistic. Sure, one could argue it doesn't serve a purpose as far as the plot goes, but it's the smaller details that don't necessarily contribute anything substantial that help to ground small-scale and intimate stories like this. We should also note that this creative choice was made long before the push for all-inclusive atmospheres in films and television featuring females and members of the LBGTQ community. 


Someone’s Watching Me! starts off somewhat slow; Carpenter takes his time introducing Leigh, allowing her affability and subtle painful emotional history to earn the audience’s sympathies — this so Carpenter can methodically turn on the creep and raise the stakes a little at a time. He wrings genuine suspense during several key moments, one of which takes place in a desolate parking garage. Though Leigh falters a handful of times, coming close to emotionally surrendering to her tormentor, she refuses to be run out of her new home. Someone’s Watching Me! isn’t a slasher flick, but Hutton is definitely a final girl, and she’s one of the strongest the genre has ever seen (and she’s got the ultimate bad-ass line, which ends the film).

Though this was still very early on in Carpenter’s career, and he was working with a cast and crew outside of his usual repertoire (no Carpenter score for this one, and no D.P. Dean Cundey), Someone’s Watching Me! still manages to feel like a Carpenter film, especially when it comes to the camerawork. Also, look for an appearance from Len Lesser, Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo himself (“Hello!”) as one of the film’s handful of suspects.

Sep 4, 2014

SANE, SANE, SANE

“Then she did see it there - just a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask. A head-scarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be. The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones. It wasn’t a mask. It was the face of a crazy old woman. Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

Jul 14, 2014

A MADHOUSE?

"What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother...there?"
If we don't, remember me.

Jan 9, 2014

UNSUNG HORRORS: THE NIGHT LISTENER

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time. 

Dir. Patrick Stettner
2006
Miramax / IFC Films
United States

“You're the kind of guy who needs proof. The hell of it is, we're only as loved as we think we are.”

We so often see “based on a true story” splashed across marketing efforts for genre films being released even today that it’s almost become a cliché. Not helping is that films using this claim have become increasingly absurd to the point that when we see that “true story” disclaimer, we’ve begun to accept it as the complete opposite. Even The Conjuring – a film I admittedly loved – exploited that pledge of authenticity. After all, since Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson were playing real people who really existed and who really investigate(d) paranormal phenomenon, I suppose they were right to cover every inch of their trailers and posters with the words “true story.” But when does that become a fair marketing ploy? What makes “it” a true story? That it actually happened, or that someone merely claimed it did?

What if it’s both?

That’s The Night Listener.


Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a celebrated author and host of a late-night radio show called Noone at Night. Things aren’t going so well for him, as he’s currently separated from his longtime partner Jess (the always wonderful Bobby Canavale) and this separation is severely affecting his ability to continue on with his show. Instead, he dives headfirst into his work, trying to find something to distract him. Ashe (Joe Morton), a literary publisher and friend of Gabriel's, gives him a raw, unpublished manuscript; written by a teenage boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), it is a recounting of the disgusting abuse he suffered at the hands of his biological parents – his being forced to “star” in dozens of videos in which he was raped by friends of his parents. Riddled with disease following his abuse, Pete only has a couple months left to live, and in the meantime has been adopted by his social worker, Donna Logand (Toni Collete). Gabriel and Pete share an unlikely but sweet bond. Gabriel offers fatherly advice when he can, and Pete describes his day-to-day trials and tribulations of his hospital life. The two trade letters and phone calls,  (ahem...Playboys), and talk smack on each other – just how friends would. Gabriel even receives a photo of Pete in a red sweater and simple bluejeans, finally giving a face to the name.

After Gabriel corresponds regularly with Pete and Donna on the phone for over a year – a year! – Jess hears Donna and Pete talk over speakerphone and plants a seed in Gabriel’s head that sets The Night Listener’s events in motion: Jess is pretty confident that Pete and Donna are the same person – that Donna is fucking with Gabriel’s mind, going at great lengths to convince him that Pete is real. Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering the truth: if Pete Logand actually exists, or if Gabriel is one of the many victims of a psychologically unstable charlatan desperate for attention and trying to escape a history of abuse that perhaps did happen after all.

There are dozens of people who know them.


Who?

Doctors. There's a nurse who comes and stays at the house.


You've only been told that.

What about the photo?


It could be anybody.

There's ways to prove this...



Echoing what I said in my Unsung Horrors write-up for Insomnia, I love it when Robin Williams goes serious. With that, this, and One Hour Photo, Williams has consistently proven he can do dark drama just as easily as comedy (and far better). I wish I knew what it was about him as a performer that allows him to carefully shed the manic screwball persona he's had since the days of "Mork & Mindy" so I could more ably analyze what it is about him I love, but I've got nothing. The guy just is – he's just as at-home bouncing off the walls and doing his army of weird (kinda stupid) voices as he is using just his eyes and his sad smile to convey a hundred different emotions at once. He's so good, and perhaps underrated, though thankfully filmmakers keep giving him the chance to defy convention and go for the throat. It's resulted in one much deserved Oscar for the actor already (for Good Will Hunting).

It's difficult to applaud young Rory for his role as Pete, as he hardly ever appears on screen. Because of the whole "is he/isn't he real?" approach, it was wise to limit his physical appearance, except in scenes in which he is corresponding with Gabriel over the phone, and Gabriel is using his imagination to fill in the gaps and paint this picture of Pete he's attempting to assemble using random bits of information gleamed from their conversations. Most of his "presence" is his voice on the phone, and the filmmakers do a great job of switching back and forth between Culkin and Toni Collete, making us unsure as to who is who, and when.

The Night Listener, however, is Toni Collete's film. She really is a powerhouse here – one minute she has our every sympathy, and the next we can't stand seeing how far she's willing to perpetuate her lie; at times we're nearly demanding the truth because we just can't take it anymore. "You've got a fucking lie for everything," Gabriel even tells Donna in an ugly confrontation. If it is a very unglamorous role. Her clothes are too big and her hair is greasy. Her "blind look," consisting of thick sunglasses, foggy blue contact lenses, and unkempt appearance create the look of a shut-in – one who never ventures out except to visit her normal stops and collect the sympathies of the folks in town who know her. She spends most of her role asking for and inviting this sympathy, but when she wants to be scary, she can be scary. I'll point to the scene towards the end in which Donna teases Gabriel with the "ending" his story requires and lures him to a motel – this after after she's emptied her Wisconsin house and moved, unable to be found. As he cowers in a dark corner and watches her leave, she slowly turns to look – look – at him out of the corner of her eye, as planes at the nearby airport scream in the background.

Chills every time.

Besides for “based on a true story,” another oft-overused and sometimes completely inappropriate phrase that inundates genre film marketing, once a critic utters the magic words, are “a Hitchcockian thriller.” If said phrase were reserved for actual students of Hitchcock, like Brian De Palma, or Richard Franklin, it could be forgiven. I think critics sometime forget that Hitchcock wasn’t just a storyteller, but a pretty renowned and stylistic director, too, which means it’s nonsense to describe any film that has a mystery as “Hitchcockian.” Cases involving mistaken identity, femme fatales, or quirky and potentially dangerous leads are hallmarks of Hitchcock filmography, let’s not shit ourselves, but that still doesn’t give you the right to label any old thing with the master’s name. Just because you can locate the most tenuous connection between a modern film’s gimmick and tie it back to that same trope once utilized by Hitchcock himself – sorry – that doesn’t suddenly mean the new Liam Neeson film in which he tears across Berlin kicking ass and trying to remember his name is a Hitchcockian thriller.

Even when filmmakers subject audiences to a story not as compelling as it should be, I am always struck much more by said filmmakers’ abilities to successfully channel the look and feel of a Hitchcock film. De Palma, no matter how outlandish his films have become, has this down in spades. He likely created the ultimate homage to Hitchcock with his 1992 film Raising Cain, turning John Lithgow into a psycho long before "Dexter" ever did. The Night Listener director Patrick Stettner seems a student of Hitchcock, but perhaps in less an obvious way. I love that a film with so much character interaction is still experienced solely through Gabriel's eyes and brought to life through his imagination. When Gabriel pictures Pete during a phone call, the boy is wearing the red sweater and bluejeans he's also wearing in his photo. And the first time Gabriel speaks to Donna, she doesn't have a face until Pete jokes that he's "got a thing for redheads" – and that's when we first see Donna, red hair and all. It's subtle, but effective if you realize the trick.

Every inch of The Night Listener is drenched in cold and pale tones. Effortlessly, it ups the bleak quotient and decreases any feelings of hope or joy. Pretty appropriate for a film in which not just Gabriel, and not just Gabriel's friends, but even a small Wisconsin town all fall victim to the lies of a deeply troubled woman. And every single one of them were in a small way guilty of helping to spread the lies and bring them legitimacy. It's interesting in that it forces us to take a step back and consider just how many things we hear on a day-to-day basis are actually falsities – either big or small – and how often we repeat them without actually knowing the truth.



The Night Listener is about escapism, and what we're willing to do and say – to ourselves and to each other – to perpetuate a lie and try to make things less unbearable. Jess confronts Gabriel in the film and demands he tell him where the couple were when Jess told Gabriel he was HIV-positive. Gabriel responds, "in the park in front of the guys playing drums." The real place was a crummy diner somewhere in the city. But Gabriel's version was more romantic, and it reads better on paper. A white lie, perhaps, but a lie all the same. Perhaps more telling, there's a scene on the plane while Gabriel is flying out to give Pete and Donna a surprise visit – fed up with the excuses being lobbed his way about why his previous invitation to visit them is being constantly rain-checked. Gabriel's seat mate on the plane asks him the purpose of his visit. Gabriel responds he's flying out to visit family: his son. Because he needs this. Now that Jess needs Gabriel a little less, Gabriel needs this idea of a new family more. It's no longer fact-checking the events of a pretty horrifying book – it's yearning for family, and not wanting to believe that's the last thing waiting for him at the airline's departure gate.

We tell lies because they're preferable to the truth, but sometimes we tell lies because the truth is just too painful to endure. We all wish we could live in the fantasy world we create for ourselves perhaps for only minute at a time  – where the person for whom we pine wants us just as much, or the struggles we daily face are no longer existent. While nearly none of us are willing to hold onto lies and bring them to artificial life like Donna Logand, the only thing stopping us is a lack of conviction and the imagination to do so. And that's kind of scary.

Jun 8, 2013

TRICK

One night, a young girl was lying in bed, just on the verge of falling asleep, when she heard her mother calling her name from the kitchen. She went downstairs to see what her mother wanted, but as she was passing by the cupboard under the stairs, the door opened and a hand reached out and dragged her in. It was her mother, hiding in the cupboard. 

“Don't go into the kitchen,” whispered her mother. “I heard it calling my name too.”

Mar 14, 2013

REACTION: BATES MOTEL


Like it or not, Bates Motel is back in business. Based on the four-film Psycho series beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's legendary original, itself based on the novel by Robert Bloch, Norman Bates is about to go off his rocker...again.

"Bates Motel" explores the early years with Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his domineering, over-protective mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). After the untimely death of his father, mother and son pack up their car and head to the prime piece of California real estate Norma was able to buy at a steal. It's not long before the Bates begin to meet the locals...including one Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), whose family had built and then subsequently owned the Bates' new property for generations, and is none too happy to see it under the care of outsiders. Couple this with the girls at school showing Norman a sudden interest, and Norma begins to feel like she is losing control. Her plan for a fresh start is threatened by the unhinged Keith and her control over Norman looks as if it's slipping.

This being a prequel to the prequel to the original Psycho, naturally the blood starts flowing...before Bates Motel checks in its first guest.

This was tried once before...in 1987 (between the third and fourth Psycho entries.) Starring Bud Cort and Tank Girl from Tank Girl, Bates Motel tried its hand as a pilot but ended up being a one-off TV movie due to audiences' sheer disinterest in the subject matter. In the movie, a fellow inmate from Norman's insane asylum (Cort) apparently inherits the former Bates Motel and accompanying house from his crazy friend and attempts to re-open it for business. Who knows why. Murders happen. Blood flows. Moses Gunn is there, having an awesome name. I guess other stuff. Attempts to watch the 58th generation VHS rip posted on Youtube is a Herculean task of patience, so I can't say I was ever able to sit through the whole thing.

But that's all moot, seeing as how "Bates Motel" is being tried again...only we're going back in time...to the present(?).

I chose to call this a "reaction" rather than a review because it's tough to review the very first chapter of what has been planned as an ongoing series. Not a miniseries, mind you, but an honest-to-gosh television show. We've barely scratched the surface of where the show-runners plan to go, so it's tough to pass judgment on what's essentially a nugget of an idea soon to materialize.

So, what was my reaction?


I was hesitant upon realizing the show was being set in modern times. It's strange to see a modern-day prequel to a film made - and which very much reeks of its year - in 1960. But already I can see what the show-runners are attempting: with Norma's collection of somewhat antiquated dresses, Norman's rather drab ensemble and outdated puffy haircut, and with all the very old house furnishings that came with the house, and which Norma claims they'll toss as soon as they can afford to get some other things (but will likely be sticking around), there is going to be more to this show than a fish-out-of-water, the boy-next-door-is-a-killer pulp tale. It's going to be the old culture clashing with the new. Hitchcock's original film played up the isolation of Norman and his mother, especially after "they moved away the highway." So since we're technically not at that point yet, we need to find another way to isolate the Bates - and if not geographically, than culturally. Oh, sure, Norman already has an iPhone upon moving to their new home (a mistake, if you ask me), but beyond his own mother, who also has one, who do you think he ever called with it? Because of this culture clash, I find the modern updating a little more forgivable  The Bates exist in the modern world, but in their own time. It's too early to tell how this will play out, but it's an interesting choice.

Vera Farmiga is one of her generation's most unfairly uncelebrated actresses. The Departed likely put her on the map, as well it should have, because she's great in the Boston-set crime piece, but she's been holding her own since and struggling somewhat to be re-recognized. She's certainly not a stranger to playing the mother of a somewhat...aloof child (see Joshua and Orphan), but this time she gets to show off her own brand of crazy. Not that we've yet to see any of this craziness per se - this is, after all, only the pilot episode - but something is there, simmering just under the surface. It's handled perfectly subtly, and Farmiga seems to be doing a good job of playing her role right down the middle - she's not all there, and you can somewhat tell, but we're not rooting against her yet (if we're ever meant to.)

The jury is still out on Freddie Highmore as Norman. He seems, at best, adequate for the time being. This might be the most high-profile project he's been a part of since 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That coupled with the jump to television has made the struggling thespian a little too willing to show off his chops. Some of it works, but some of it borders on embarrassment. Not helping him any is the sometimes awkward dialogue (ie, "There's a man on the floor lying in a lake of blood! What do we do, mother? We have no idea what to do!") 

Confessing my ignorance on details of the actual production, the show creators have either opted to film exteriors on the original Universal black lot to include the infamous house and motel, or they have done an admirable job of recreating it - including the house and motel interiors. Either way, good on them. The mere idea of updating the Bates house, forever sitting atop its perch, is blasphemous, and I'll definitely cop to some movie geek chills seeing the Bates house and motel again after all these years.

Oh, and for the record, does Norman seriously meet five gorgeous girls and is taken out for a night on the town by simply sitting on a bench and listening to classical music? The fuck?

Only in the world of make-believe...


Surprisingly, A&E seems to be going ahead with the suggestive incestuous undertones that were only alluded to in the original film, and which became more and more direct in each successive sequel. Nothing too obnoxious - at least so far - just a mixture of slightly unnatural mother/son closeness and a couple suggestive glances... although the soliloquy Norman delivers to his mother to close out the episode might blow the lid off my usage of "nothing too obnoxious."

And that is where my main point of contention comes into play: The relationship between Norman and his mother is essential - it is the driving force to both of their madnesses, and it will make or break how the show plays out moving forward. All during this pilot episode, Norman has made it a point to act out, defy his mother's wishes (and orders), and attempt to forge his own identity. He meets new people rather easily considering the show wants us to buy he is an outcast, and for the most part, the girls swoon to him like crazy (which will likely rile up the "jealous and angry boyfriend" character trope we've seen so many times before). And yet...after Norman experiences a taste of this new life, in which gorgeous girls give him the time of day and he effortlessly makes friends and nothing remotely traumatic happens to him...why does he just opt to leave it all behind for his mother? There's no catalyst - no clear reason why he does so. There's no reason present why this new life just isn't for him. Arcs like this hinge on a moment for a character to realize they were wrong to think they could leave it all behind, but we just never understand why Norman does, and it was a rather weak way for the episode to end.

So what would Alfred Hitchcock think?

Hitch, who is back in a big way recently with this, his titular bio pic, and his less than flattering portrayal as a misogynistic prick in HBO/BBC's The Girl, would appreciate the casting of Highmore - at least in theory. Like Anthony Perkins in the original, Highmore is a handsome if somewhat awkward looking kid; rather unassuming and harmless...at least on the surface. For anyone familiar with Robert Bloch's original novel (it's been ten years since I last read it), Norman Bates was not a primp, skinny, and handsome fellow, but rather described as fat and hideous - a man who no woman would ever consider a feasible partner in any sense. It was Hitch who decided to cast the handsome but plain Tony Perkins in the role, changing not just the character's face, but his dynamism and his drawing power. (As an aside, while the novel does contain a motel room shower murder, it's not dozens of stabs as depicted in the film's iconic scene, but just the one - in which Marion Crane is decapitated by Norman's blade.)

Additionally, citing one particular scene featuring a urinating cop, let's just say Hitch would appreciate the black humor as well, of which he was a master. From a director's standpoint, however, he would appreciate nothing. (Granted, we're in television, here - not film - but even "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" showed a little creative flair from time to time.) Nor would he appreciate the pilot hitting the ground running without taking time to build the Bates' madness. If anyone could milk the inevitable, it was him, and he would call the show's attempt to get right into it cheap and unsatisfying.

As a show free from its lineage and judged on its own merits, it's a decent first trek into scripted narrative for A&E. There's already enough ongoing drama to engage viewers not looking for growth to a previously established character, and there's enough grue to keep horror fans satiated, along with some not-so-subtle shout-outs (Coach Carpenter! Sheriff Romero!), and, of course, plenty of pretty faces. As for me, I'll tune in from time to time to see what's going on with Norman and his mother, but regardless of where they take this show, and regardless of how realistic or fantastic they make it, there's one thought that will always be looming in the back of my mind: Norman Bates' monologue to Marion Crane in the original film is all the back story we ever really needed - summed up neatly and effectively in just a matter of minutes. Because of that, I fear that "Bates Motel" was already irrelevant before the opening credits ever rolled.

Make up your own mind when "Bates Motel" premieres this Monday on A&E