Here we are at the end of my little Halloween run, and to finish things off, I saved the least-viewed movie for last. I hope it will give you all something a little different to watch this season. The Orphanage (produced by Guillermo del Toro), is Spanish director JA Bayona's 2007 feature-length premiere. Not only is it a first-rate ghost story with plenty of chills, but it is a surprisingly heartfelt and moving picture as well.
The Orphanage is based on a traditional Spanish ghost story. It is about Laura (played excellently by Belén Rueda), a woman who grew up in a seaside orphanage and returns with her family to run a special school for disabled children. Her son, Simón, soon makes some imaginary friends who love to play, and their games unearth a long-forgotten mystery that endangers Laura and her family.
I've noticed that I'm pretty good at reducing these types of movies into awful synopses, but this really is a good movie. I guess I just don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. Be warned that I won't be so considerate from here on, so continue reading at your own risk. What first gets me about this movie is the beautifully sombre visuals that create such a palpable feeling of foreboding. There is an uneasiness right from the get go that continues throughout. Aesthetically speaking, it pulls off being a traditional ghost story very well. But what I really like about it is how it differs from that formula later on.
From the moment Simón disappears Laura's journey is one of confrontation with the unresolved past. What I love is how hard it works to make you think it is really about forces supernatural. But really, the only ghosts here are memories, and guilt the only restless spirit. In that sense, we all live in our own private ghost stories. This is what separates The Orphanage from all the Insidious's and Sinister's out there: it resonates with something everybody has experienced. It reaches us on a personal level, bringing back those private demons we usually try to keep buried.
Given that, The Orphanage is then free to become a much more emotionally valid movie than just the petty ghost flick it could have been. It is truly heartbreaking at times, and quite moving. Laura's relentless search for Simón becomes more and more tragic as the movie goes on. Often there is no thought of the supernatural as we see Laura in her grief. Then there are moments of real terror. Of course the two (raw emotion and gripping suspense) are married splendidly as the film climaxes, making it truly unique in its class. It goes beyond being just a spooky yarn or a devastating tale of loss. It poignantly blends the two, turning the feeling of foreboding into longing and, at last, to a powerful catharsis. It blends grief with hope and finds peace.
Okay, maybe you don't want to spend your Halloween on something so meaty, but I think it is definitely worth it. It is the truly satisfying kind of story, made all the more enjoyable for how it really haunts you.
That will do it for my Halloween extravaganza. Let me know what you thought, maybe what I should have included. I think next time I'll go over the new one due out tomorrow from the Wachowski's, Cloud Atlas.
The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, has been one of my most anticipated movies this year. It has been out for a month now, but I only just got to see it today. I feel like the guy who missed the series finale of Seinfeld, but found somebody who taped it to finally be able to see it. Such are the benefits of living in Cedar City. And, luckily, I wasn't disappointed. The Master offers a depth one doesn't often find in movies, and is absolutely perfect in execution. It is a modern classic.
It is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed Navy veteran, and his encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of "the Cause". Quell is searching for something, and Dodd seems the one to have the answer. I don't want to go too much into plot, because it really is worth seeing everything play out on the screen. But I'll tell you now, this is probably the best film of the year so far.
This movie is worth seeing just for the performances. I haven't seen an actor wear his character quite so much as Phoenix does here. This will be an eye-opener to those of you who have only seen him as that guy who plays the emperor in Gladiator. Hoffman does just as well, and seeing them both together is a joy. Amy Adams rounds out the cast as Dodd's wife, and this is quite a different turn for her. She's not at all like the innocence her face projects.
This is a movie I don't think I'd recommend to everybody. It is a little hard to experience and to digest. Not that it is controversial. But Anderson asks quite a bit of his audience, and is no apologist. There has been lots of hype about it being "the Scientology movie" or whatever. Of course, it's not. It goes in deeper and asks some pretty serious questions about some pretty institutional things we all identify with, be it religion or love or money or government or however you want to read it. Basically, can these institutions provide what they claim to provide? Are they as interested in you as they are in themselves? How is it that it is often the very thing that draws you to something that ultimately pushes you away? The Master is a movie that makes you think, but not in the figuring out plot holes or how one can be a necessary but undeserved hero sense of the term.
Another remarkable thing (and a tribute to Anderson's writing) is that this all plays out as much in the plot as in the characters themselves. Of course things happen in the movie, but these events would not have the import they do were it not for the vibrancy of the characters he creates. Anderson's characters are not simple caricatures drawn in broad strokes and symbolic merely of motive or emotion. They are complicated and contradictory. Sometimes their motives are not quite clear. In this case they have a healthy dose of reality, and are not your typical movie characters. It is in their mixing together that the thematic elements come to light.
Like I said this movie is not for everyone. It's not one to take your girlfriend to after dinner at the Olive Garden, and not one you can rent and watch while you do homework. But it is one of the great movies of the year, make no mistake, and expect to hear about it and wonder why you didn't before come Oscars.
Mel Brooks' 1974 classic Young Frankenstein is deservedly one of the greatest comedies of all time. But it must be said that it is Gene Wilder's brainchild as much as Brooks', and their collaboration is golden. They set a careful balance of wordplay and sight gags and artfully exploit every horror-movie stereotype in the book. I also thing it is more consistently hilarious than lots of Brooks' other work, and is a great change of pace for any Halloween movie list.
The story centers around Frederic Frankenstein (Wilder), an accomplished neurosurgeon trying to distance himself from his grandfather Victor's controversial work. Upon Victor's death, Frederic travels to Transylvania to settle his affairs. There he meets hunchback Igor (Marty Feldman) and "lab assistant" Inga (Teri Garr) and is soon on a quest to pick up where his grandfather left off, eventually bringing the Creature (Peter Boyle) to life.
The whole movie is carried by the performances it features, with Wilder's increasing mania as a centerpiece. Feldman often echos Buster Keaton. Madeline Kahn, playing Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth, steals every scene she is in. And of course there are lots of delightful side characters, including a wonderful cameo by Gene Hackman as a blind monk. They are the kind of performances that are instantly quotable ("taffeta, darling...") and yet yield fresh humor on repeat viewings.
But what takes this film beyond being simply a great Saturday Night Live sketch is the detail Brooks puts into the film's atmosphere. Everything from matte paintings to music to set design all reflect the Frankenstein movies of the 1930s. They even used lots of the original laboratory props. And yet there are subtle tweaks throughout, turning what once was horrifying into comedy genius. I appreciate that fineness of attention even more than the brilliant jokes Brooks and Wilder cram into every scene.
Okay, maybe it is a little irreverent, and some people might not think better of you for inviting them to watch it with you, but it will still make you laugh 'til you hurt. I'd much rather watch this at a Halloween party than Paranormal Activity. Whose newest installment I plead with you all not to see.
If you do have a hankering for a good ghost story, I suggest The Orphanage, which I will be discussing after I go over Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which I will finally be seeing this weekend.
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, remains one of the great horror movies of all time. Indeed, I think it is the first great horror movie of the modern era. It turned what had been predominantly a B-movie genre into art, marking a transition in our cultural discussion and depiction of fear as it showed people, not things that go "bump" in the night, as the monsters. It also shows Hitchcock at his very best, showcasing the perfection of his craft as well as his wicked sense of humor.
Psycho is the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), an attractive Phoenix woman who absconds with 40,000 dollars in cash in order to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). On the road, she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely motel keeper. Soon her sister Lila (Vera Miles), a private detective and local law enforcement are on her tail as she seeks to escape from her "private trap" and set her life in order.
This premise sounds like an okay movie. But in fact this detailed setup is what makes it such a great one. Hitchcock really invests in Marion. We get to know her pretty well before anything serious starts to happen. We want her to succeed. She is motivated primarily by love, and that gets her into trouble we want her to be out of. We worry about Marion and how she will deal with her hasty crime, but we are also sympathetic. But then, that's not really what this movie is about, is it?
WARNING: Spoilers and stuff ahead.
One of my favorite things about Psycho is this great false setup. From the point of the murder on, it feels like an entirely different movie. The paranoia made obvious by the frantic music present all through Marion's flight from the law gives way to suspicion and confusion. Suddenly everything that was important (the money, Marion's plans, her moral dilemma, etc) doesn't matter at all. They go with her to the bottom of the swamp. It now becomes Norman's movie. He is, in a way, our new protagonist. He generates some serious sympathy in the discussion he has with Marion, even if he is a little (okay, a lot) creepy. He is also motivated primarily by love, and we want him out of his jam as well.
Of course, that all turns out to be our own deception, and I think that is what makes Psycho so great. We are impressed by the irony in the story, in what we know that the characters don't, but we don't see it coming for ourselves. We end up almost having to be more sympathetic to Norman than to Lila and Sam. Sure, what happens to Marion not even halfway through the movie is jolting, unexpected and terrifying, but what Norman has become (indeed was from the beginning) is, I think, even more so. Hitchcock gives full room for his genius to flourish. He lets us see into all the characters, and even lets in an awful joke or two (a favorite scene is the woman expressing that "all death should be painless", just moments after we have witnessed Marion's brutal murder), waiting until the closing moments to define "psycho", when we thought we already knew what it was.
I know, the graphics and effects date this movie quite a bit, and it is harder to be as shocked now as it was in 1960 given the amount of cultural exposure the movie has had, but that doesn't take anything away from it for me. We are left with an unforgettable movie experience nonetheless, which I hope you enjoy as much as I do.
NEXT TIME: We'll continue the October festivities with a look at Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.
by Chase Harrison