Saturday, November 19, 2011

Animation Bracket- Round 2

Thanks to those who cast votes on Round 1, and for those who didn't, here's a chance with Round 2.  I tried to pair the films based on similar quality more than medium this time, making it a fair fight.











All votes are appreciated

Friday, November 18, 2011

My Review of The Birds

The Birds (1963)

When you come to think of it, The Birds is actually one of the most influential films ever made. All "act of nature" or "attack of the killer whatever" movies, even those about zombie apocalypses owe something to The Birds. This is also the second Alfred Hitchcock movie I have seen (the first being Psycho) and it is one that I picked up in a collection recently (which also includes Rear Window, North By Northwest, and Vertigo, all of which I will be seeing soon). The Birds isn't quite as good as Psycho, but it is still pretty much a perfect movie in my eyes, because I couldn't really find anything wrong with it. The film is exciting, suspenseful, well-acted, well-directed, and at times, it is genuinely frightening.

However, if one were to look at the first forty-five or so minutes of The Birds by itself, it would not seem like a horror movie at all. In fact, it seems like a romantic comedy until Hitchcock pulls a complete genre switch. The film is about Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy San Francisco socialite who meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop during a typical romantic comedy meet-cute situation when he is looking for lovebirds to give to his younger sister for her birthday. It is here that we learn that Brenner already knows who Daniels is (which is not a bird shop employee like she was pretending to be to talk to him) and that she is a notable practical joker, which he doesn't much care for.

Following the meet-cute/loathe at first sight, Melanie decides to buy the lovebirds for Mitch and goes to deliver them to his apartment, but discovers he is not there, rather he is at Bodega Bay (where the majority of the film takes place) staying with his mother and sister (which his neighbour says he does every weekend). She decides to drive up and give the birds to his sister by hand. While experiencing her first hours in Bodega Bay, she meets Annie Heyworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a suspicious schoolteacher, and after she is invited to dinner by Mitch, she meets his little sister Cathy and extremely distant mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy).

However, it's when she's boating back to the mainland that the audience sees there's something up. A seagull ducks down at Melanie and scratches her on the head, apparently deliberately. Melanie decides to stay the night and rents a room in Annie's house. Annie explains that she used to date Mitch, and that the reason that they are no longer together is Mitch's mother. It seems we have another Norma Bates on our hands, but Annie explains that she's not afraid of losing her son, but she is afraid of being abandoned (after losing her husband several years prior) and she sees any woman that Mitch takes interest in as a threat. It is made clear that the mutual attraction between Melanie and Mitch is growing as well, which may cause problems, but there are bigger issues to deal with.

The birds attack again, this time at Cathy's birthday party, and they wound several children. After they take refuge in the house and think that they are safe, birds come sweeping into the house and attack all that are inside it. We don't know why they are doing this but it has managed to strike fear into the hearts of all the residents. Lydia asks Melanie to get Cathy from school the next day and what follows is a prime example of a perfectly staged suspense scene. Annie tells Melanie to wait outside while she finishes her lesson, and while she is sitting on a bench and lighting up a cigarette, crows slowly begin to descend on the play equipment. Melanie seems entirely oblivious to this until she turns around and sees hundreds of crows have descended, ready to attack. Daniels and Heyworth get the children to run away and they swarm, attacking the children.

I don't want to spoil too much more, but I will discuss another one of my favourite scenes. Melanie is calling her father at a bar, telling him about the bird attacks, and the news sparks up a debate between her, the bartender, an ornithologist, and a drunk who seems to think it's the end of the world. Then, another attack starts to happen, the one that frightened me the most until the climax. Two birds swoop down and attack a man who was pumping gas, and the gas leaks under another car. The owner of that car lights a cigar and pandemonium ensues. It is a genuinely suspenseful scene and one of the finest scares ever put on film. That being said, those who are fans of the wham-in-your-face type of scares will not like this movie because even though there is one of those near the end (which I will not spoil), most of the horror comes from build-up.

This movie definitely takes its sweet time getting to the outright horror, and Hitchcock knows that it's the little things that get people freaked out, and that build-up is a key element of suspense. The viewer can't just be pushed into the swimming pool, they have to stick their toes in first, test the waters. This element of the film reminds me of Black Swan. It's the little things in Black Swan that start to make things freaky (like the scratches on Nina's back and the moment when she pulls a large piece of skin off her finger), and Aronofsky uses these small things to freak the audience out before he throws them into the craziness of the second half of the movie. Hitchcock used the same method 47 years before, gradually freaking out the audiences with the little things (such as the seagull that attacks Melanie and the dead bird at Annie's door) before the film is flung into full apocalypse mode.

With this clever buildup, Hitchcock has managed to transform birds into some of the most frightening villains ever put on film. I wouldn't be surprised if this movie turned people off of birds, like Jaws has turned people off of the ocean and Psycho has turned people off showers. It didn't have that effect on me, but I can't deny that the birds in this movie are extremely creepy. These birds can smash through windows, peck through doors, blind people, obviously kill people, and worst of all, they don't care who they attack. They also seem invulnerable, like little Birdinators. The last image we see of them is pretty powerful, them covering the house almost in its entirety. Talk about creepy. I was unsure of whether this would hold up, but like the other Hitchcock movie I have seen, it holds up extremely well and I'm sure with repeat viewings, it will still get a reaction out of me, and the object of a horror film is to scare people is it not?

The film is well-acted on all ends, the only one I could possibly complain about is Veronica Cartwright, the actress who plays Cathy, but she gets better as the second half progresses and she's only a kid, so I don't want to be too hard on her. Plus, I like Tippi Hedren in this movie much more than I like Janet Leigh in Psycho. I feel sorry for the poor thing as well, because she suffered what was basically a psychotic episode while filming the movie entirely at the hands of Hitchcock. She and Rod Taylor work well off eachother, and the belligerent sexual tension between the two of them is fun to watch, especially in the first half of the movie before things start to get scary. The last performer I would like to talk about is Jessica Tandy as Lydia, Mitch's mother. She gave an excellent performance as the distant, and yet emotionally vulnerable mother who is still grieving over the loss of her husband, and of course, she does a great job of acting terrified when the birds come along.

The production design of the film is also solid, and the cinematography is excellent as per Hitchcock standard. As I explore more and more of his films, I will probably get to know his style better, and the next one that I would really like to see is North By Northwest, which I will probably watch tomorrow with my dad. Needless to say, The Birds does not reach the level of greatness that is Psycho, but it is a horror classic nonetheless and probably my favourite horror movie besides Scream. I strongly recommend it to everyone, including Hitchcock buffs (although most Hitchcock buffs have probably seen this already) and especially people who need familiarizing with this amazing director's oeuvre (this is a great starting point for those who want to explore Hitchcock's work as well). It's well-acted, well-filmed, suspenseful, and occasionally genuinely terrifying. So all I can say is that Platinum Dunes better not touch this or I'm going to be pissed.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Animation Bracket- Round 1

I have picked my thirty-two films and decided on my pairings for the animation competition, so here are the picks for round one! As a rule, I tried to evenly match all films and pair them by medium (traditional animation, CGI, stop-motion) and mostly by company (Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Ghibli, etc.) and these choices are all based on the animated films that I have seen (that's why there is only one Studio Ghibli film on the list for those who would wonder) All votes are appreciated.

















Friday, November 4, 2011

My Review of Psycho

Psycho (1960)

I absolutely love this movie, and what better way to pay homage to horror than to review a movie that I love which could very well be called the birth of modern horror? I think a more appropriate genre title for Psycho would be a psychological thriller, but there are some definite horror elements in it. Psycho was also an extremely influential film in that it introduced several new elements to film that would be copied dozens of times, such as the twist ending (every film that has a twist ending nowadays owes it to this film) and several other revolutionary technical aspects of filmmaking that would be expected from a filmmaking great like Alfred Hitchcock (who I definitely need to explore more). Psycho is most remembered for its shower scene but it has so much more than that. It is well-acted, well-made, well-filmed, and a generally awesome movie that I love more the second time around. Fair warning, the big twist is going to be revealed but I'm fairly certain you all know what it is, so I'm only posting this just to be sure.

After the credits, we see Marion (Janet Leigh) with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin). Sam and Marion want to get married but cannot afford it, as Sam's money is tied up in paying off his father's debts and paying alimony to his ex-wife. Marion then goes to her secretarial job and is given $40,000 to bank for her boss. Thinking on Sam's remarks, she does not bank this money and instead skips town with it in tow. What then follows is the first extremely suspenseful moment in the movie and one of the best scenes ever put on film. Marion falls asleep in her car and she is awoken by a cop, who proceeds to chase her until she trades out her car for a new one. After she loses her tail, Marion continues to drive but is stopped by the rain, and pulls into the Bates Motel.

The Bates Motel is an isolated place, and it's rarely visited by guests. It is also towered over by a large mansion-like house. Marion meets the motel's quiet owner and caretaker, a nice young man by the name of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman invites her for dinner in the parlor and it is here where we see the first sign that there is something wrong with Norman. He tells Marion about his mother, who he seems to have an abnormal attachment to, and when she suggests he put her "someplace" (meaning an institution) he, albeit calmly, loses his temper. These sudden mood swings are a part of what makes Norman such a great character, but I'll talk about that later, we have more plot to discuss. Norman also has a thing for stuffing birds, and we see him arguing with his mother about bringing Marion to the house, but for now, he seems like a sweet, albeit eccentric fellow who has mommy issues. That will change.

What follows is the movie's most famous scene, the shower scene, which I consider to be in two parts. Pretty much everyone knows what goes down in the first part, Marion is murdered in the shower by "mother", but in the second part, Norman (acting as the dutiful son) cleans up the mess. The first part is brilliantly staged as so many people have said before, but I find the aftermath more powerful. Not a word of dialogue is spoken, but we see what is going through Norman's mind as he cleans up his mother's mess. We see him performing the role of the dutiful son and see him genuinely terrified by what had been done. It really speaks to the quality of Anthony Perkins' performance and how he can convey so much with just his facial expressions. I suppose I should talk about the shower scene though. I understand Hitchcock's approach to the scene, as there is a certain sense of paranoia involved in setting the scene in a shower. When one is in the shower, it automatically suggests vulnerability. You are alone, naked, and sealed off only by a curtain. I never found it scary, but I understand how it traumatized so many people (including Janet Leigh, who never took another shower for the rest of her life). Needless to say, the scene is iconic, but the second half of it should be recognized as classic as well and a tribute to the wonderful performance of Anthony Perkins.

The second half of the film takes a completely different turn, as it is mostly about Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam investigating Marion's disappearance. They do this with the help of private investigator Aborghast, who goes to the Bates motel and talks to Norman, who it appears is on to him. Aborghast leaves the motel, but feels dissatisfied, so he comes back to talk to Norman's mother. He is never seen again, and Lila and Sam go to the motel to investigate. Lila goes to talk to Mrs Bates and finds her in the fruit cellar. However....Lila instead finds a corpse with no eyes in a dress and a cheap wig. Her scream alerts Bates, who then shows up in the same dress and cheap wig, and is wrestled to the ground by Sam.

There is an expository speech at the end, given by the psychologist, which explains exactly what is wrong with Norman. He explains that Norman had murdered his mother and her lover out of a sense of jealousy, and overtaken by guilt, he allowed "mother" to take over part of his brain and convinced himself that she was alive by dressing and acting like her. Why he killed Marion and two other women was because "mother" came out whenever Norman was attracted to a woman, and her jealousy ended up getting them killed. The last major scene I would like to discuss is the last we see of Norman, sitting in the jail cell, "mother" having completely taken over his personality. The ending of that scene is extremely disturbing, as there is an image of Norman's face superimposed on his mother's skull. I don't mind the slasher smile, but the skull just pushed the scare over the top.

The first performance I would like to talk about is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the role that he would be known for until the tragic end of his life. His Bates is amazingly complex, and his character always keeps the audience guessing. We never know whether Bates is an innocent pawn or an evil plotter, a poor soul under the thumb of his wicked mother or a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. My best guess is a combination of several of these things. I have a feeling that if Norman Bates had a different mother, he would live to be a normal guy and lead a normal life. However, he lived basically his entire life (at least after his father's death) under the thumb of his abusive mother, and thus, he went crazy. That's what makes Norman have some semblance of sympathy and what makes me feel kind of sorry for him. It's also what makes the final scene kind of sad as well as scary. Perkins gets so much done with the performance not only with his words, but with his face and his body language. Every nervous tic and every stuttered word is played pitch-perfect and this is, in my opinion, the grand Oscar snub.

Janet Leigh, however, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance and while it certainly wasn't awful, it was nowhere near as good as Perkins. She properly conveys all of the emotions necessary of a woman on the run, nothing more, nothing less. I find it funny that Janet Leigh was something of a 'scream queen' in this movie, and she gave birth to an even more famous scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis (who was two when this movie came out). John Gavin is a good Sam, embodying the role of the noble hero, and doing it very well. We only really see him in the second half (he appears at the beginning of the movie and isn't seen again until after the shower scene), but when we do see him, we like him and want to see him win. Psycho is one of those movies where there is no real clear-cut hero or villain (except Mrs Bates, who is definitely a villain), but if there is the closest thing to a traditional hero in this movie, he would be it. The last performance I would like to talk about is Vera Miles as Marion's sister, and many things that can be said about Leigh's performance can also be said about Miles'. Another weird coincidence that I picked up the second time watching this is that Anthony Perkins and John Gavin look very similar, almost like they could be blood relatives, as do Janet Leigh and Vera Miles. Kind of funny seeing as the connection between Perkins and Leigh is important in the first half, and the connection between Gavin and Miles is important in the second half, a parallel of sorts.

The film also introduced a whole bunch of new filmmaking concepts that have been copied numerous times (as well as introducing a concept later used in Scream by having a big star being killed off in the first half of the movie). The black-and-white cinematography is amazing and each scene is staged to perfection (some important ones being discussed in this review). The last thing I would like to talk about before wrapping this up is the score. I love the score of Psycho, and throughout history, it has become one of the most iconic movie scores of all time. Even people who haven't seen the movie know the violin-based score and the tune (especially the tune from the shower scene) is pretty much instantly recognizable upon hearing. All in all, this is an extremely revolutionary movie and one of the best movies of all time (placing around #4 on my all-time favourites list). It is extremely well-acted, extremely well-filmed, and extremely well-written, and just awesome in general. I loved it the first time, but I love it even more now and I hope to watch it again several times (and hopefully to own it someday). This is the very definition of must-see, anyone who hasn't seen it needs to see it immediately and anyone who has needs to see it again.