DVD Movie Review: Room 237 (2012)

1682657-poster-1280-room-237-unlock-doc-enlists-kubrick-obsessives-to-decode-secretsDull boys

Picturenose welcomes writer, screenwriter and all-round film expert Paul Morris with his thoughts on Rodney Ascher‘s dissection of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining (1980).

There are little boys who love nothing better than passing a lazy summer’s day pulling the legs off spiders – then there are those who like to watch others remove the limbs of said unsuspecting arthropods. The nine disembodied guests gathered around a mike in Room 237 are certainly in the voyeur category.

Room 237 is a conspiracy theory in miniature, or rather in the minutiae wherein they claim lie the hidden messages in Stanley Kubrick’s horror – I prefer psychological – classic The Shining (1980). If you believe the nine ‘experts’ in this insanely detailed work these messages have been breeding faster than a colony of rabbits that has stumbled upon a packet of Viagra. They are, it appears, to be found in every frame, and someone has to be obsessed enough to check every frame, making the film last days rather than its original running time of 146 minutes.

Room 237 is as billed as a documentary but it feels more like a film school test set by a permanently sozzled professor who didn’t quite cut it in Hollywood. Director Rodney Ascher is clearly teacher’s pet. It has the feel of early 1970s commercial films, for some small city attempting to attract first-time buyers to its corner of the dust bowl: in other words, the budget didn’t quite stretch to images that always match or enhance these nine voices of God.

It has been described as “head-spinning” and it has that effect as we are bombarded with the evidence of the secret intentions of one of Hollywood’s most maverick – to put it mildly – filmmakers. In this film the devil in so much in Jack Torrance but in the detail, and there’s lots of it. At times it’s positively hallucinogenic. I had to pause it and take a breather after I watched a very, very slow zoom in on a poster until the camera found a fuzzy image of a skier – you’ll have to watch it to find out the significance of that blurry character.

You have to really buy into this malarkey from the off or you’ll find yourself shouting at the screen ‘Come on!’, ‘Seriously!’, followed by umpteen ‘For real!’s. Kubrick was renowned for being difficult – more, I think, a power struggle with producers than anything to do with creative juices – but the notion that he planted so many little secrets on his set is dubious, not to say ludicrous. I directed my own humble low-low budget feature some time back and the set designers could have dumped a blood-soaked thoroughbred’s head in my hospital bed scene and I wouldn’t have spotted it, such is the frantic nature of no money filmmaking.

The nine different earnest views of what the film is really about range from the genocide of Native Americans to the Apollo 11 moon landing (yes, that old turnip again), rather than simply a very well-made film based (loosely) on a bestseller by Stephen King – “an entertainment”, as Graham Greene used to call some of his novels. I can picture these creative conspiracy theorists staring at the back of the cornflakes packet in the morning until it reveals its true meaning.

A friend of mine took his Granny to the cinema, to see Star Wars (1977). Driving her back home he asked: “So what did you think of the film?” She replied: “It’s a bit far-fetched.”

PS. It’s heartening to know that director Ascher admitted to not believing any of these theories. Thanks for the ride, Rodney.

102 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

only-god-forgives05Lacking rhythm

When we left the very effective Nicolas Winding Refn-Ryan Gosling duet a year-and-a-half ago, after Drive (2011), we were surrounded by the violence of the last part of the film, but also seduced by the elegance and the sobriety of this highly original cinema, which paid a very personal tribute to Michael Mann’s film-making style.

Very slow, very silent and above all very red, this is how one may characterize the long prologue of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ninth film, a project he reportedly has been devoted to for years. Taking place in a Bangkok city with no Asian cliché absent – prostitution, boxing clubs, drugs, corrupt cops and karaoke – Only God Forgives (2013) details the rather complicated relationships between two brothers and their mother, all of them hiding their criminal business under cover of a boxing club. The older one, Billy (Tom Burke), a psychopath whose likeness to the young Orson Welles is underlined during a long close-up, slaughters a young Thai prostitute in a brothel. Chang (Vithaya Pansrigarm), the mysterious cop who apprehends him, gives him up to the young girl’s father, who kills him in an act of vengeance.

Enter the mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who arrives from the US to avenge of her favorite son’s death. The younger one, Julian (Ryan Gosling), while involved in illegal activities such as drug dealing, clandestine gambling nevertheless seems to have principles is reluctant when it comes to violence. From this point on, the film becomes a kind of face-off between two figures of evil, the feminine and totally perverse mother on the one hand, and the mysterious yet extremely cruel cop who killed her son on the other.

If Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance is impressive, revealing a blonde vulgarity that contrasts sharply with the icy kind of class she usually gives her characters, if her part is undoubtedly the most talkative, she unfortunately has to deal with impossible lines – such as during the dinner scene with Julian and his so-called girlfriend. She also has to assume caricature-style attributes, generally speaking, such as the ‘prophetic’ evening dress she wears in one of her first scenes.

Chang’s character may in fact be the most disconcerting and convincing, alternating between quiet karaoke scenes and ultraviolence, as if he had signed an enigmatic pact as a righter of wrongs. What about Ryan Gosling, with his Drive and his recently expressed wish to retire from the cinema industry? Julian’s part was not meant for him in the beginning, yet his recent weight as an actor has obviously resulted in turning Only God Forgives into a nice little earner for Gosling with numerous close-ups and slo-mos. In the process, however, it has seemingly appeared unnecessary to provide him with the opportunity to cope with proper dialogue – if Gosling does not confirm his intention to distance himself from acting, one may think he should at least urge his agent to find him parts in talking movies.

So, what remains of Only God Forgives in the final analysis? The lack of rhythm from which the film suffers makes the extreme violence almost unsustainable, which reaches a climax with a blood-and-thunder Oedipal denouement, whereas in Drive it seemed to be part of a meticulously constructed structure. There are long shots of blood red corridors after the fashion of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), insistent references to Buñuel and Lynch, a complete absence of emotion, while the atmosphere of the film is so packed with symbols that paradoxically the aesthetics that Winding Refn builds manage to be frosty and kitsch at the same time. The film leaves us dazed and relieved, yet disappointed not to have understood the intentions of an indisputably gifted and ambitious film director.

90 mins.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Not-so-OK computer

It’s an underrated and, these days, little-viewed classic is Joseph Sargent‘s Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), which is probably why Hollywood, as we speak, is planning the customary big-budget remake starring, surprise surprise, Will Smith. I’ll make no comment as to what a mess Smith’s last sci-fi epic I Am Legend (2007) was, or how the notion of remaking this is probably as good an idea as the 2008 Keanu Reeves-starring version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) turned out to be, because that would be petty. No, I will simply concentrate on just how good Sargent’s film is, and let Picturenose readers make up their own minds as to how much we really need Colossus 2.0, fair enough?

We’re still in the heart of the Cold War as the film opens – Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is putting the finishing touches to his super-computer Colossus, which is located inside the Rocky mountains range and, with a final press of his remote control, is now fully self-operative and powered – thanks to a deadly gamma radiation shield, the complex can never again be entered by humans. Did I mention that it also controls all of the US’s nuclear arsenal, thereby removing human irrationality and emotions from any defence decisions? Well it does, and the US President (Gordon Pinsent) is delighted, believing that the computer’s existence will mean an end to the deteriorating detente between America and Russia, and will allow mankind to concentrate on its real problems, such as poverty and famine. But he’s just finished announcing its existence to the world, with Forbin on hand to explain the finer details, when Colossus makes its first communication – Warn: There is another system.

And indeed there is – the Russians, thanks to a leak from Forbin’s team, have constructed their own super-PC, which we learn is called Guardian. Colossus demands to be linked to its (his?) peer…and then the fun really starts.

As with other great Cold War thrillers, such as Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), this ultimately works so well because it really isn’t afraid to show us how bad things might get if the ‘human factor’ were to be removed from potentially apocalyptic decision-making. However, where Sargent’s film differs is that there is no computer failure – rather, the computers, once they hook up, work far too well together, and come to perceive humanity as inferior and very much in need of control.

Braeden is very well cast as Forbin, who also comes to represent Everyman when it becomes apparent just how far Colossus is prepared to go to achieve its ‘aims’ for mankind – made a virtual slave of the machine, which still needs him for representation to the planet, Forbin is wracked with guilt as to what he has wrought on humanity and is attempting, with the assistance of his attractive colleague Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark), with whom Colossus allows him some ‘privacy’, to undermine the computers’ grip on the whole world.

But, being that this is a cold, dark fairy tale, his chances of success appear increasingly limited.

Sargent, who was to go and prove himself more than adept in the thriller genre, particularly with the highly influential The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) (which had a reasonable remake delivered in 2009), is helped enormously by James Bridges’ tight, literate adaptation of D.F Jones’s original novel (which was actually part of a trilogy, but the other two installments have not yet been filmed), and straight-faced performances from the entire cast, which ratchet up the tension very well.

I still find the film genuinely scary – know this, if the talent behind the upcoming Will Smith remake even think about shoehorning a ‘happy ending’ in, I will be extremely disappointed. Check out the film for yourself here.

100 mins. In English and Russian.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

‘Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.’

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ – this was the very phrase that sprang to mind when I was wondering which film to write about next and, as those who have seen Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal A Clockwork Orange (1971) or read Anthony Burgess‘s equally brilliant novel (of which it is the first line) will know, this is just about the only utterance by young Alex Delarge (Malcolm McDowell) in the film that is not touched by Nadsat, the blend of classical/literary references and street argot that is spoken by Alex and his ‘droogs’ (friends) in the Britain of the future that forms the story’s setting.

Did I say ‘future’? Well, let’s just say that the film and novel are set ‘the day after tomorrow’ and, as anyone who knows the narrative and modern British society will tell you, the horrors on display here are more likely a lot closer than that.

Alex is a streetwise, charismatic and intelligent young man who, along with enjoying ‘a bit of the old in-out, in-out’ and more than his fair share of ‘ultraviolence’ is also a huge fans of the work of Ludvig Van Beethoven – his Mum (Sheila Raynor) and Dad (Philip Stone) are (almost) blissfully unaware of their son’s nocturnal activities, but the authorities are closing in and, when Alex goes a little too far and murders the solitary oddball ‘Catlady’ (Miriam Karlin), before being deserted by his droogs Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus) and Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), he is sent to jail for life. But, when he hears about the new ‘reclamation therapy’ Ludovico Treatment that is being touted as a way of dealing with the bestial urges of youth, Alex sees it as nothing more than a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. He couldn’t be more wrong…

Kubrick’s film works so very well, for this reviewer, because of its peerless combination of moods, mores and subversion – as with all the very best films that deal with the notion of the complicit observing audience, there is more than enough sex and violence served to satisfy the Peeping Tom in us all, but then Kubrick’s daring places us as viewers into a very uncomfortable position. Simply put, we know that we should not have any sympathy for the sociopathic Alex but, such is the tyranny of the society that is his captor, we have little choice and, by the time that the film ends (‘I was cured, alright’), the audience is left in a complete moral dilemma.

In addition, A Clockwork Orange is filled with set-pieces that could only be Kubrick – the ‘Vellocet Bar’ opening, the murder of Catlady, the truly disturbing rape (Viddy well, little brother…’) of the wife of the kindly Mr Alexander (Patrick Magee) who foolishly lets Alex and Co. into his country house, the fast-motion congress between Alex and two young girls with the William Tell Overture as a backdrop and the Ludovico Treatment itself, all could only ever have been committed to film by Kubrick – no other director would have had the guts.

And, while I should perhaps be ashamed to admit it, the movie as a whole is simply riotous fun. Don’t agree with me? ‘Well, come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!’ 😉

136 mins.