Sunday, September 27, 2015


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I know that this 2003 film was not well received by critics, but I believe it has some interesting psychological elements, as well as being a thriller with some intriguing plot twists.

A killer is being brought in a raging rain storm for a last minute plea for a stay in his execution before a judge. It is the defense's argument that the dissociative (or multiple personality) killer, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), after being treated by psychiatrist Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina), should not be given the death penalty. We then switch to Ed (John Cusack), a chauffeur, driving a movie star (Rebecca De Mornay) in the storm. After being distracted by the actress, he runs over a woman who is with her husband and a child, Timmy (Bret Loehr), who is mute following the accident. Cell phones are not working in the storm, and Ed drives everybody to a dilapidated motel.  There he meets Larry (John Hawkes), who is the manager. It is curious that Ed has a gun.  He is able to stitch up the mother's neck wound, but she lays prone in a reception area. A young man and his wife show up, as does Rhodes (Ray Liotta), flashing a badge. He is transporting a murderer, whom we believe is the one who is to show up at the late night hearing. When Ed drives to get help, he meets a young woman, Paris (Amanda Peet).  Since the roads are washed out, they return to the hotel. Larry immediately slanders Paris, saying she is slutty looking. Paris finds out that Ed was a cop, but he left the force after not being able to give a pregnant AIDS infected druggie suicidal jumper a reason to live.  (The book on the car seat next to Ed is Sartre's Being and Nothingness, a good indication of his existential belief in the lack of objective meaning in life).

Deaths start to occur. The movie star's head is found tumbling in a dryer, and the young husband is stabbed to death. The murderer, Robert Maine (Jake Busey), has broken loose, and everybody suspects him in the killings. After being captured, he, too, is found dead, with Larry's baseball bat shoved down his throat. Before dying, the murderer states that he believes that Larry is hiding something, and says he also has a secret. We find that Larry is hiding a dead body in the freezer, whom he says was the proprietor he found dead when he first arrived.  He simply took over his position, taking the guests' money.  The others suspect him of the deaths, and when he escapes, he accidentally runs over the father who pushes Timmy away from the oncoming truck. The guests start finding room keys on all the dead bodies, and question how a murderer could have arranged a car accident. Ed tells the young wife to take the boy and drive away. However, the car explodes into flames. Now the story really veers into the unrealistic, because all of the dead bodies are now missing, with no trace of blood at the death scenes. And, we find that Larry, Paris, Rhodes, and Ed were born on the same day.

We now switch to the hearing again, and the real murderer arrives strapped into a wheel chair. It appears to be Ed, but Dr. Malick gives him a mirror, and it is Rivers’ face that he sees. The psychiatrist says that he is just one of Rivers' personalities, and that all of the events at the motel are in his head (thus the same birth date for the characters). Rivers was traumatized in his youth, and one of the personalities he developed was a killer lashing out in anger. Malick's therapy was to eliminate the extra personalities, including the one that is the killer, so Rivers' personality can be reintegrated. Back again inside Rivers' head, Paris finds in the glove compartment of Rhodes' car the dead killer's secret – he and Rhodes were convicts being transported, and there is the body of the policeman who Rhodes killed en route in the trunk. Rhodes pretended to be him. Rhodes kills Larry as Paris escapes. As Malick talks in the real world to the Ed personality, he hunts down Rhodes in Rivers’ mind. We first think that his character will be Rivers' surviving personality, but he is only a catalyst.  He kills Rhodes, but is killed in the process. The only survivor is Paris. She had told Ed that she wanted to return to her home in Florida and grow oranges. The defense convinces the judge that the killer personality is now dead, Rivers' death sentence is commuted, and he is remanded to a psychiatric hospital.

On the way there, with Malick and a policeman driving the vehicle, we see inside Rivers' head. Paris is in sunny Florida, among the orange groves. But, while digging she finds her motel key, the sign of death in this story. Did everyone share the same birthday?  No, not the young boy, Timmy.  She turns around, and standing over her we see the boy holding a sharp tool. We, as does Malick, hear Rivers' voice, and the audience hears it coming out of the boy's mouth. He says that whores don't get a second chance, and he slashes at the young woman at the same time that Rivers strangles the psychiatrist and we assume kills the driver. We see flashbacks in Rivers' head that it is the boy who has done all the killings, including suffocating his resting mother. What was the abuse he suffered as a child? The references to sluts and whores may refer to a sexually abusive mother. It makes sense that it is the child in Rivers that remains as the killer personality, taking revenge for the pain he suffered as a helpless youth.

Admittedly, the dialogue is not sharp here, and the rationale for many of the killer's personalities is not substantiated. However, the film is inventive and different in having a murder mystery take place inside the mind of a character in a movie.

Next week’s movie is Casablanca.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Graduate

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I just stated college when Mike Nichols’ film was released nationally. The senseless Vietnam War gave the country a feeling of dread. Many post-secondary school students, like myself, had military draft deferments, but weren’t sure how long they would last. But, there were wars being fought in the U. S., too, at the time. There was the fight for civil rights for African Americans. There were protests at universities against the war in Asia. There were riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention waged by people who thought the country was a democracy in name only.

The Graduate tapped into all of the anti-establishment feelings that were being felt at the time, but the film itself is surprisingly absent of references to the current events. There is no mention of the Vietnam War. We do not hear Martin Luther King’s name mentioned. The University of California at Berkeley, the epicenter of student unrest at the time, appears sedate in the overhead shot of the campus. Only actor Norman Fell’s concern about “outside agitators” reminds us of the tumult that was going on there. But it is in the non-specific exposure of the affluent society that created the country’s ills, and the depiction of youth wanting a meaningful and unique destiny, that makes this movie a timeless story.

Even though this motion picture, with its exclusive zeroing in on Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), makes us identify with this young man in transition, Nichols does not exalt him as a generation’s hero. Does he petition against fellow youths being sent to war? Is he at rallies protesting racial discrimination? The answer to these questions is “no.” As was pointed out in a film class taught by filmmaker Andrew Karasik, he is depicted from the very first scene as a passive individual being transported through upper middle-class America. He arrives home on a jet plane. His luggage, like himself, is moved along on a conveyor belt. (Although his exiting the terminal through the wrong doors hints at his future nonconformity). He is given an expensive sports car for travel around his affluent world as a graduation gift. He is like an early version of Forrest Gump, where the focus is on the main character as a vehicle to show the audience the significance of what’s going on around him.

Nichols shows us with biting humor the superficial world closing in on Benjamin. His graduation party is filled with material minded people confronting him who only want to tell Ben how his future can be like their present. There is the famous line of advice about going into “plastics.” Ben can’t break through to anyone else because no one is listening. There is no communication in this world. Mr. Robinson doesn’t listen to him when he asks Ben what he likes to drink, and, at one point, he can’t remember Ben’s name (an ad lib because actor Murray Hamilton forgot the character’s name, and Nichols left it in). The shot of Benjamin looking through his aquarium makes it appear as if his world is claustrophobically enclosed. He looks like a fish in a tank in one of the last scenes, banging against the glass at the top, rear part of the church where Elaine is to be married, trying to escape his prison. There is a plastic (see, everything is made of plastic) frogman in the aquarium in his room, which foreshadows the scene where his father makes him wear the underwater gear. All we hear is Ben’s breathing in that scene. There is no communication again. He is submerged in the pool, underwater, trapped like a fish in a tank. He literally and figuratively drifts in his circumscribed pool that summer, with no direction. When his father asks him what was the point of all his education, his reply is “You got me.” Many of us at that time felt the same way given the type of world the system produced. Earlier, when asked why he is avoiding the guests at his party, he says he is worried about his future. He says he wants it to be “different.” This statement sums up Benjamin’s rebellion, which is a personal, not a political, one.

There is one person at the party who sees right through to Benjamin’s angst. The camera provides us with a telling quick look of a woman observing Benjamin, assessing him. It is Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of Benjamin’s father’s partner. When she asks Ben to drive her home, she throws the car keys into the aquarium, as if offering him a way out of his mental prison. However, the way she allows him to be anti-establishment is through a self-serving act of adultery. Why does she try to seduce Benjamin at this particular point? Is she just manipulative, and sees that he is vulnerable enough so she can use him to satisfy her wants? Certainly there is an argument to be made for this viewpoint. She dresses in animal print underwear, emphasizing her predatory nature. Even her enclosed patio is covered in plants, making it appear to be a jungle in which she rules. But, isn’t she finding a kindred soul whose life is as empty as hers? As opposed to the superficial talk of the friends of Benjamin's parents, she candidly admits to being an alcoholic, a condition that disqualifies her from being a model for the suburban world she inhabits. In a later scene when they are in bed together, she admits to having been an art major, and now has lost all interest in it. She let her youthful passion slip away. Possibly she seeks out a younger person to recapture that feeling of hope for the future. She was a rebel herself, having premarital sex and getting pregnant with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). But, she capitulated to the world of the affluent suburbs, and settled for a loveless marriage of convenience. However, once she does seduce Benjamin, he is now seen as corrupted. This corruption is symbolized by Benjamin, an athlete in college, beginning to smoke once the affair begins, an act which shows his thumbing his nose at the compliance to the rules had had lived by. She, as the mother figure, in an oedipal manner, has initiated him into defilement. She is already a fallen woman, but she does not want her daughter to be sullied by being romantic with a man with whom she had extramarital sex.

It can be argued that Ben’s anemic act of nonconformity is the unethical decision to have an illicit affair with an older woman. And what kind of rebel winds up with Elaine, who is the girl his parents wanted him to be with in the first place? But Ben is not seeking sexual gratification with Mrs. Robinson at first. He says to her, “Maybe we could do something else together. Mrs. Robinson, would you like to go to a movie?” He just wants to make a connection with someone who is as unfulfilled by life as he is. Since she does not want to have a meeting of the minds, it is appropriate that we hear the song “The Sounds of Silence” in the background during their lovemaking. To blame Benjamin for breaking up the Robinson’s marriage, well, it was a hypocrisy to begin with, a “for appearances only” arrangement. As far as choosing Elaine, she is, as is Benjamin, as are we all, our parents’ children. Do we become duplicates of them, or are we capable of seeking out individuality?

When Benjamin finds something he is passionate about, Elaine, he converts from being passive to being active. He pursues her at college, runs after the bus that is taking her to her fiancĂ©e, and runs to the church after his car breaks down. The image of Ben heading toward the camera, however, makes him appear as if he is running in place, getting nowhere. He is depicted as making an effort, but it is almost Sisyphus-like in showing how difficult it is to struggle against society’s entrenched establishment. Nichols depicts him as a Christ figure with hands raised in the long shot of the back of the church, as if crucified by these perverters of freedom. It is at this point that Elaine makes her decision to not give in to her mother’s conformity. In older movies, this type of scene would happen before the bride and groom are married. This scene takes place after the vows. Thus, the defiance is emphasized as Elaine tells her mother, “It’s not too late for me.” Ben literally fights off Mr. Robinson and the others who want to perpetuate their kind of submission, wielding, blasphemously, from the churchgoers’ viewpoint, and at the same time appropriately from Ben’s perspective, a crucifix. Whereas, earlier, doors are used symbolically to show him being closed in or locked out by others, he now closes the church door, locking in his adversaries.

But, at the end, even though Nichols has provided us a momentary feeling of exalted freedom, he then undercuts that euphoria with the shots of Benjamin and Elaine, her in her wedding dress, as the two sit at the back of the getaway bus, a kind of honeymoon conveyance. Earlier, when Ben runs after Elaine on the way to the zoo, he still winds up on a bus, taking him away, without him directing its motion. Here again, the two appearing contemplative, almost sad, not looking at each other, not really knowing each other, seem to be thinking, “Okay, what do we do now?” They are not driving the bus, but are being carried to who knows where? Is it possible to direct our own destiny, or are we just carried along by the currents of life?

Next week’s movie is Network.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Long Day's Journey into Night

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

You might feel like you spent a whole day watching this film. It comes in just under three hours. Well, Eugene O’Neill was not known for being brief. Some critics have criticized this 1962 screen version of the play, directed by Sidney Lumet, for being “stagy.” I would have to disagree. Yes, we are talking about basically a four character story set at a beach house. But Lumet starts the story of the Tyrone family outside, near the water. The first object we see is the sun, its burning rays bearing down on the earth, hinting at the long day to come. To me the use of the illuminating sun as the first image presented is ironic, since this family doesn’t really want to see the truths surrounding their lives. At one point, the son Edmond (Dean Stockwell) says, “Who wants to see life as it is if you can help it.”

Lumet uses close-ups to zero in on characters as they are showcased while going through their ruminations. He says in his book, Making Movies, if you viewed close-ups of the actors at the start of the movie and then at the end, “you’d be shocked at how different they look. The ravaged, worn, exhausted faces at the end have almost nothing to do with the composed, clean faces at the beginning. It wasn’t only acting. This was also accomplished by lenses, light, camera position, and length of takes.” This effect emphasizes the toll this day (which is symbolic of the many days of their lives) exacts on the family members.

Let’s look at the individual characters. The matriarch, Mary (Katherine Hepburn) has been morphine-addicted since the birth of Edmund. She was institutionalized, and her husband and sons worry that at any moment she will relapse (which she does). Gong to the “spare room” is the signal that she is isolating herself from the family (a spare room is not used by family members) so she can shoot up. The drug addiction is a literal and figurative escape from reality. She, as do the others, blame their problems on other family members, instead of taking a hard look at themselves. Mary says it is her other son’s fault, Jamie (Jason Robards, Jr.) for having the measles that infected a third child, who eventually died. She says it was Edmond’s fault for bringing a birth too soon after the death of a child that led to her addiction. She refuses to accept the fact that Edmond has tuberculosis, and slaps him when he tries to make her realize he doesn’t just have “a summer cold.” She accuses her sons and her husband, James (Ralph Richardson), the traveling actor, for having lives outside of the home, leaving her alone. But, she has made the house a prison for herself. The fog at the beginning is symbolic of her inability to see the truth about her life. The fog horn is used repeatedly (for instance when they all are drinking alcohol) to show how the family is like a boat trying to navigate a self-imposed obscurity to the truth. Lumet says in his book that he used longer and longer lenses on Hepburn to show the character’s slipping “into her dope-ridden fog.”

The pretentious father, James, is also in a state of delusion. He was an actor of some note who invents statements about his theatrical abilities. He blames his sons’ wandering ways on their lack of commitment to the Catholic faith instead of taking responsibility as their father. He tries to limit the consumption of alcohol by the boys, but he drinks a great deal stating it is for medicinal purposes. He champions the importance of the family, but he was absent much of the time and was unfaithful to his wife.

Jamie drinks to excess, visits brothels, and generally has no stability in his life. He wants to blame his father and mother for his cynical and pessimistic view of the world, but again, does not take any personal responsibility. Edmond became a sailor to escape the family. He talks of a nirvana-like experience while at sea. He felt part of everything else, achieving self-obliteration, and not feeling at home at any one place. It is appropriate that he is the one suffering from “consumption,” since his individuality has been wasting away. The father blames Jamie for corrupting Edmond, but the latter allows his brother’s influence to take hold of him.

In the end, the characters start to confront the truth about themselves. For instance, Jamie confesses his love/hate relationship with Edmond (which is sort of how they all feel about each other) when he tells him that he wanted to corrupt his brother. He didn’t want Edmond to be the preferred son of the parents. Lumet says, “As the scenes progress and the truth becomes more and more agonizing, the lenses get wider and wider, the camera gets lower and lower, the light harsher but darker, as the whole story of these people gets wrapped in night and the final terrible truths are articulated.”

As I said, a long day indeed.

Next week’s movie is The Graduate.