Tuesday, January 10, 2017

127 Hours (2010)

I first became aware of this film when I saw a preview for its home video release on either a DVD or Blu-Ray (I can't remember at all what movie it was) and, initially, I thought it might have been a direct-to-video release or, at the most, a theatrical movie that nobody had heard of and had slipped quietly in and out of theaters. Boy, would I learn I was wrong about that but, regardless, I was intrigued by the story and setting, and my interest was especially piqued when I heard somebody who normally isn't a big fan of James Franco give it some of the highest praise imaginable. It didn't take much longer for me to decide that I would eventually seek this movie out, ultimately picking up the Blu-Ray for very cheap at Best Buy in the summer of 2015, mainly because I wanted to watch some things that were very definitely summertime-oriented and this, with its desert canyon setting, seemed to fit the bill; the fact that I was also apparently getting an inspiring, well-made story was just icing on the cake. It wasn't until I picked up that Blu-Ray that I learned that the movie was directed by Danny Boyle and also that it was an absolute critical darling, with a quote from the New York Times' glowing review prominent on the front cover and Roger Ebert's perfect four-star rating on the back. However, critical praise means little to me, as I've long since learned to save judgement for something until I see it for myself and also because I've been burned before by movies that were very acclaimed. Case in point: once I finally did get around to watching 127 Hours, I came out of it feeling rather underwhelmed, unaffected, and surprisingly emotionless. I was mainly taken aback and thrown by how overly-stylized the film was, which I often found confusing and distracting, which resulted in my not caring that much about the main character's plight and struggle for survival. But, most shocking of all to me, Franco's performance, which has been praised to high-heaven, didn't get me swept up in the story at all... and with that, I'm sure that I'm going to get some flack and told that I don't have a heart or a soul or what have you. Trust me, I'm not going to sit here and say it's a bad movie, because it's not. It's very well-made and stunning on a technical and visual level but, story-wise, every time I've watched it, I've been left with a feeling that I can only describe as, "Whatever," which I wish was not the case.

Aron Ralston's biggest passion is the outdoors and, on a Friday night in April of 2003, he heads out to a campsite near Utah's Canyonlands National Park to prepare for a lot of biking, hiking, and mountaineering the next day. After biking for nearly 20 miles, Aron heads out on foot, soon coming across hikers Kristi and Megan, who believe that they're off-track from where they plan to go and Aron points them in the right direction, leading them to an underground pool along the way. The three spend some time swimming and dropping down into the pool repeatedly before parting ways, with the two of them inviting him to a party the following night. Aron makes his way to Blue John Canyon and attempts to climb down into a small slot canyon, only to slip and fall to the bottom, knocking loose a large boulder that smashes and pins his right hand against the canyon wall, leaving him stuck. Unable to pry the rock off, Aron soon realizes that he's completely alone and isolated, with very little food and water, and, worst of all, he told no one where he was going. As the days pass, he continues to try to free himself, with no luck, and begins recording a video diary to try to keep his morale up, telling himself not to lose it. However, as his condition and exposure to the elements worsen and his food and water run low, he begins to both hallucinate and remember notable moments in his life, both good and bad, ultimately coming to the conclusion that his arrogance and disregard towards the people in his life, including an old girlfriend and his family, led him to where he is now. Now, it's just a question of whether Aron will simply accept his impending death or find a new will to survive.

Danny Boyle is a director whose work I'm not that up on. I know of a lot of his movies, like Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, and especially Slumdog Millionaire due to all of the hype and accolades it got around the time of its release (although, nowadays it seems like one of those movies that's been forgotten), but the only other ones that I've seen are A Life Less Ordinary and 28 Days Later. I actually saw the former on the ride back from a retreat in my junior year of high school and, from what I remember as I've seen it briefly on cable since then, I thought it was interesting, albeit not something I'd watch all the time (funnily enough, it's considered one of Boyle's few misfires). As for 28 Days Later, I didn't really care for it the first time I saw it but, upon subsequent viewings, I've grown to think it's a pretty fair horror movie. I wouldn't put it in my top favorites list or anything but I think it's okay. Looking at his filmography, it's obvious that he's one of those filmmakers who really likes to experiment with the visual flair of a movie, especially in the effects and editing, and there are directors who do that who I'm personally quite fond of. However, from what I've seen of Boyle's work, while I do find the stuff he does interesting, it doesn't inspire me to seek out his other films and it comes across to me as kind of artsy for the sake of it (as we'll get into, one of my problems with this film is that I think he really went overboard with it, which I don't think was needed for this story). It also doesn't help that the subject matter of his movies is often stuff I don't care about but that's beside the point. I definitely don't mean any personal disrespect for the guy, as I love the passion and zeal for his work that he displays when he's directing in behind-the-scenes footage (he's like Martin Scorsese in how he really gets into what his actors are doing), but his work and style doesn't really excite me.


Obviously in a movie like this, the lead role is what's most important, as he or she is literally the one who holds the entire weight of the story on their shoulders (or their hand, in this case), and I'd be lying if I said James Franco's performance as Aron Ralston sucked because it definitely doesn't. It had to have been a very taxing role not only physically but acting-wise as well, because he has quite an arc to play here. We see him start as a reckless, perhaps even a bit arrogant, but charismatic free-spirit who loves the outdoors, so much so that he neglects a message left on his answering machine by his sister in order to get going to Canyonlands National Park, and looks most comfortable when he's biking and hiking across the desert and canyons. Even a fairly nasty crash on his bike early on doesn't dampen his spirit, and when he comes across two young women who are lost, he not only good-naturedly points them in the right direction but shows them an underground pool where they can have and cool off for a bit. Despite the bond the three of them seem to form, it's obvious even at this early stage that Aron probably wouldn't have shown up at the party they invited him to because of how carefree and independent-minded he is, whooping excitedly as he heads on down his own path after they go their separate ways. However, when things take a dramatic turn after that boulder traps him at the bottom of the slot canyon, you see the change in Aron's attitude immediately. Naturally, he starts out in a panic, trying desperately to free himself, and when that doesn't work, he attempts to call for help, only to realize that there's no one within miles. He's completely alone. Once that's dawned on him, he calmly empties his backpack out to see what he's got in there that could help, wisely rationing his water and whatever food he has, and attempting to chip away the rock with his pocketknife in order to get enough room to free his hand. As time passes, he begins making a video diary with his camera, both to keep his morale up as well as to leave something behind for his loved ones in case he doesn't make it. Trying to keep his cool, reminding himself not to lose it when he becomes frantic at one point when he thinks there's somebody up there, he makes other attempts to free himself with a makeshift pulley and again tries to chip away at the rock, only to theorize that he's actually causing it to settle more, while continuing to ration his supplies.

As his situation becomes more and more dire, Aron's morale slowly but surely begins to fade, and as his physical condition worsens from the weight of the rock and ongoing exposure to the elements, he begins to have a number of strange dreams and hallucinations, which are intertwined with a process of deep introspection he begins to go through. He thinks back on various moments in his life and realizes the mistakes he's made, mainly how he's neglected his family and friends, determined to do everything on his own because of his ego and selfishness, and how it cost him his relationship with Rana, a young woman who seemed to truly love him. In his memory, she tells him that he's going to end up alone... and she was exactly right. This leads Aron to come to the conclusion that everything he's ever done, all of the bad choices he's made, have led him to this point, saying, "I chose this." Resigned to this revelation, he basically gives up and waits to die, apologizing to those who he'll never see or hear from again thanks to his reckless selfishness. But then, in his fragile mental state and physical condition, he sees a hallucination of himself playing with a little boy... the son he'll have if he manages to free himself. This gives him the incentive to keep going, create a tourniquet around his right arm, and use his pocketknife to sever everything else that's been rendered useless by days without circulation. Finally free, he's able to make his way out into the desert, where he comes across a family of hikers who alert the authorities to what's happened, leading to Aron being airlifted to the hospital.


After all of that, you're no doubt going to say, "I thought you said you ended up not caring about the main character's plight and that Franco's performance didn't do anything for you." Well, it's weird. When I think about it in retrospect, like right now, I can really look into and appreciate all these nuances in his performance and characterization but, when actually watching the movie, even though I can see them there as well, they don't do much for me. I think a big reason for that is, again, how off-putting I find Danny Boyle's overly-done direction and editing to be (in other words, it's so "in your face" that it distracts me from enjoying the real meat of the film) but another reason is Franco himself. You ever have one of those actors who, no matter how truly good some of their individual performances are, you just can't get into them? That's how it is with Franco for me (Tom Cruise is another example, in case you're wondering). I don't mind him as Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies, mind you, but he's never been an actor who I find to be that appealing and someone I want to watch. He has charisma, yes, especially at the beginning of the movie and when he meets the girls, but something about him has always felt... off to me. Maybe it's that cheesy, stoner-like smile he often has or the fact that he is apparently a bit of an oddball (like I'm one to talk) but, whatever it is, as much as I can appreciate his really dramatic moments, character insight, and the sense of desperation he gives off when things quickly go south in the film, it's not enough for me to really root for him to make it. I don't hope that he dies, mind you, but I'm mainly just sitting there, watching him emote without much emotional investment. I'm probably not making any sense and sound very contradictory but, in the end, Franco is both a big strength for the film and a weakness for my personal enjoyment of it. I will say, though, I think he was a better choice for the role than Cillian Murphy, who Boyle originally wanted. I like that guy as an actor but he's so unintentionally creepy and menacing that I think it would have been far more detrimental for the movie if he'd been Aron Ralston.



This is such a one-man show for James Franco that all of the other characters are pretty much superfluous, save for how Aron feels about them and how their significance in his life impacts his state-of-mind. Really, they're only worth mentioning in passing. The two who get the most screentime outside of Aron are Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), who Aron comes across in the desert before his trek goes south but they really only serve to show how free-spirited and good-natured Aron is when he points them in the right direction and has some fun with them before heading on his merry way, probably not giving them a second thought until he gets stuck. One of them, however, does seem to have an interest in him... or maybe they both did. It was kind of hard to tell since their personalities aren't developed that much. Really, there are only two other characters who have a major impact on the story: Rana (Clemence Poesy), Aron's former girlfriend, who seemed to have genuine affection for him but was ultimately driven away by his distant, isolating attitude, warning him that he was going to end up alone someday, and the vision of his future son (P.J. Hull), which is what motivates him to do whatever it takes to survive. After them, you have his sister, Sonja (Lizzy Caplan in the present and Bailee Michele Morgan in the flashback where she's ten), his mother (Kate Burton), and his father (Treat Williams), all of whom he's been neglecting and ignoring and recent years, an act he comes to seriously regret when it begins to look like he's not going to make it. The most prominent appearance in the film, though, is of the real Aron Ralston, his wife, Jessica, and their infant son, who the fictional Aron sees a vision of at the very end after surfacing from a swimming pool. I always thought that was an interesting and clever touch, especially since it goes along with the caption that informs the viewer that Aron's vision of his future son ended up coming true (those are also the real man's friends and family standing around the couch beforehand).











By far, one of the biggest strengths of 127 Hours is in its look. This is a very gorgeous-looking movie, with excellent cinematography by Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, and it really comes to life in high-definition. Like I said at the beginning, one of the reasons why I wanted to check the film out was the setting. Besides being in that hot-weather frame of mind at the time, I've always liked the desert as a cinematic environment period and I think the filmmakers did a really good job in making it come to life here. The film's opening is full of breathtaking beauty shots of the Utah landscape, with its long stretches of vast desert and rocky mountains and canyons in the distance, which prove to be just as lovely when we see them up close as they are in the distance. We also get to see how incredible the place looks at different points during the day, with one of my favorite moments in the film being when Aron thinks back to when he was a little kid and his father took him out to a cliff so they could watch the sunrise illuminate the landscape. That no doubt had to be the start of his love of the outdoors and you can't really blame him, as it's a beautiful sight, like something you'd see in an issue of National Geographic. Another moment that I like is when, after his first night of being Aron, sees the sun gradually illuminate the slot canyon, starting at the end across from him and then proceeding to come right towards him. I think my favorite location altogether, though, is the underground pool that Aron leads Kristi and Megan to. I'm sure that was actually a set, especially since the real Aron Ralston says that this part of the story is fictional, but it's lit so well and looks so beautiful, with the water being pure blue, that I don't really care. It also doesn't hurt that I love hidden spots like that anyway, as I feel that they give a kind of mystery and wonder to everyday life.



You really have to admire any filmmaker who takes up the challenge of setting the majority of their movie inside one small, claustrophobic setting because it must be really challenging to keep it from becoming boring since the viewer is going to be looking at the same thing for a very long time and also because it's undoubtedly very challenging and taxing for the actor, as it was for James Franco here, who found the filming to be very exhausting and even physically painful. I think Danny Boyle rose to the challenge quite well and managed to successfully pull it off, which is what I meant when I said I can't fault the film's technical achievements (for the most part, anyway) as it's very well-made. You're basically stuck in this cramped, uncomfortable little quarry with Aron Ralston, with very few angles aside from the camera often being right up in his face, especially when he's recording his video diaries, but Boyle's direction, which lets you see how the place looks at different times of day (midday, afternoon, night, and even during a rainstorm that floods the place), and Franco's performance do manage to keep it from becoming monotonous and allow you to focus on the drama at hand... that is, until Boyle's overzealous visual style gets in the way yet again.

That's not a mistake on my part. That's how this moment
looks in the film.
Alright, let's stop beating around the bush and get into that aspect of the movie. There are a number of movies that are very stylized that I do enjoy (I like Ang Lee's Hulk, for crying out loud) and I'm well aware that this is one of Danny Boyle's trademarks. It's something you come expect in his films and, let's face it, he's pretty good at it. For a guy who was almost 40 when he broke into the feature world, he's managed to sustain an energy in his movies that would make you think there was a much younger man behind them. But, I feel there are instances where that aesthetic fits and when it doesn't. A Life Less Ordinary? Sure, because the story itself is weird and over-the-top. 28 Days Later? Oh, yes, because the apocalyptic setting and the basic premise of the movie lend itself to the unique look Boyle gave it. 127 Hours, however, I don't think needed to be so overdone as it is. Boyle, you're telling an intimate, human story that also happens to be based on something that happened to a real person. Ease up on the crazy visuals, because it honestly distracts me from it and is the main reason why I can't say I absolutely love this film. It starts up right from the beginning, with a bunch of split-screens of people cheering at a sporting event (I'm sure it ties into the flashback Aron later has about Rana leaving him at such a place; Aron's feeling that the rock was waiting for him ever since it was part of a meteorite is the same way because you see what looks like the meteorite travel across the screens later during this opening), hands clapping, what looks like Middle-Eastern people bowing in prayer, people swimming, running a marathon, enjoying a day at the beach, and such, when the middle split-screen shows Aron getting ready to head out to the park and it gradually takes up the whole screen. I get that the intent is to show that he's an adrenaline junkie like all of these other people but, regardless, that threw me the first time I saw it and it goes on from there, as Boyle shows us the inside of Aron's water-filled canteen as he screws the lid on (he later shows us the water going through the rubber drinking pipe in his backpack, bubbles inside a bottle of orange Gatorade, sweat running off of said bottle, and the last of the water in the canteen going into his mouth), more split-screens with different angles of his dripping kitchen faucet, and then shots of a sped-up freeway intermingled with screens of Aron driving out to the park and random shots of fast food restaurant signs, people biking on the opposite side of the room from him, and so on..



Once he gets stuck and he begins to both dream and hallucinate, the film's visuals become all the more confusing. You see a random shot of somebody climbing atop one of the large stones in the canyon and asking someone else, "How the fuck did this get here?" I'm guessing it's supposed to be a memory of him and a friend taking a hike there which, fine, whatever. It was still random but at least it didn't take me long to realize what it probably was. However, later on you get a sudden cut to a van full of naked people out in the middle of a snowstorm. Huh?! Later, it's made clear that this was some bizarre thing he took part in (maybe it was the Polar Bear Club) and was how he first me Rana but, when I first saw it, I thought I accidentally sat on my Blu-Ray Player remote and skipped ahead a chapter! And near the end, when he's given up hope and is basically just waiting to die, there's a moment where he looks up and sees somebody looking down at him who I think is meant to be Theodore Roosevelt. I could be wrong on that and it's something I'm not getting but I think that's who it's meant to be. Regardless, why is he thinking about Theodore Roosevelt in his dying moments? I understand that, by this point, his brain is not functioning properly at all but, still, why Roosevelt? It's another random visual that takes me out of the drama that I should be caught up in. But the one I can't get over is a motif that, at first, made sense. Kristi and Megan tell Aron that the place holding the party they invite him to can be recognized by a big, inflatable Scooby-Doo nearby and, during his second night being stuck, he dreams about going to said party and we not only see the balloon but also hear the Scooby-Doo theme song. Odd but at least it makes sense... and then, later on when Aron has really gone off the deep end and is hallucinating almost constantly, he thinks that there's something behind him in the quarry. He cranes his neck around and uses the flash off his camera to illuminate whatever it is, revealing that Scooby-Doo balloon for a brief second, accompanied by his trademark laugh. Again, what the hell?! I know he was thinking about Scooby-Doo before but this happens long after that, so why would that come up in his head? I can't believe Danny Boyle saw that and thought it was acceptable because I just find it to be stupid and weird for the sake of weird.



In addition, there are visuals in the film that I find to be either not necessary or make me roll my eyes and go, "Really?" For instance, after Aron tries to unsuccessfully to hoist the rock off with a makeshift pulley, he mentions in his video diary what he needs for it to work, adding, "Oh, and, uh, eight burly men to do all the hauling," during which we see the shadows of eight big guys on the desert landscape. Okay, why was the necessary? At one point, Aron has a dream about a massive thunderstorm hitting the desert and flooding the slot canyon, with the buoyancy allowing him to free himself and we see him escape, only to end up at Rana's house and for her to leave him outside in the rain. I get that the last part was meant to emphasize how much he's isolated himself and how that's one thing he'll never have back even if he is freed but the sequence with the storm, the canyon filling up, and Aron getting free and heading back goes on for a while and is a bit excessive for something that turns out to be a dream, even if I know that it has to be something that's been on his mind for a while, given the situation. But the one that really got me is when Aron, before he gets the will to live and go on, sees a vision of his parents sitting on a couch in the quarry with him, followed up by all of his friends being there with them as well. As I've said many times by now, I get the idea behind it, that he's thinking about all the people he'll never see, but I still have to ask if it was necessary to visualize it in such an artsy way, with the couch and everything. Maybe I'm nitpicky and cynical but that kind of imagery comes across as pretentious to me and I hate it when it's thrown into a movie for seemingly no other reason.







All of this criticism aside, though, there are moments where the stylization doesn't help the story. For me, the absolute best example is when Aron first becomes trapped and, as he futilely yells for Kristi and Megan, the camera, which is directly above him, looking down, pulls back and back and back until we're now in an aerial shot of the canyon and the very vast wilderness surrounding it. The addition of Aron's screams growing more and more faint as the camera pulls back until we can't hear him anymore hammers home his situation of being completely alone and isolated perfectly. Another moment that I like is when, on his third day stuck there, Aron goes through a bit where he imitates a talk show host and interviews himself about his situation. It's really amazing how this bit evolves. It starts off completely funny and silly, with Aron acting all smarmy as the "host" and dopey and shallow as "himself," and then, right at the end, becomes dead serious. Some of the more memorable exchanges of dialogue are, "Hey, Mom. I'm really sorry I didn't answer the phone the other night. If I had, I would have told you where I was going, and then... well, I probably wouldn't be here right now." "That's for sure! But like I always say, your supreme selfishness is our gain... Oh, wait. Hold on. We've got a question coming in from another Aron in Loser Canyon, Utah! Aron asks..." "Am I right in thinking that even if Brion from work notifies the police, they'll put a 24-hour hold on it before they file a Missing Persons report? Which means you won't become officially missing until midday Wednesday, at the earliest?" "Yeah. You're right on the money there, Aron. Which means, I'll probably be dead by then." "Aron from Loser Canyon, Utah. How do you know so much?" "Well, I'll tell you how I know so much. I volunteer for the rescue service. You see, I'm something of a... well, a big, fucking, hard hero. And I can do everything on my own, you see?" "I do see! Now, is it true that despite, or maybe because, you're a big fucking hard hero, you didn't tell anyone where you were going?" He then answers, "Yeah. That's absolutely correct," and proceeds to say, "Oops," several times, growing quieter and quieter as it truly sinks in how screwed he apparently is. It's probably the best scene in the entire movie, as I feel the way the tone shifts is both skillfully played by Franco and well-directed and edited by Boyle and company. At first, I thought the sound of the "audience" applauding and clapping, as well as Brion's face appearing onscreen as if he's on a Skype call, was a bit much but now, I don't mind it, as it adds to the impact when the scene ends with Aron fully realizing what kind of trouble he's in. I also don't mind the effects of Aron taking pictures of himself and later with the girls and the image flicking off-camera afterward, because I think it fits with what's going on, as does when the image on the camera begins to break up (I only put a shot of that and one with his son in that paragraph where I complained about the visuals because I couldn't find any of what was actually talking about) and the same goes for the shot inside his arm when he first contemplates cutting it off and you see the knife-blade hit the bone and especially the vision of his son, as it's what drives him to not give up and eventually free himself.


No matter what my opinion of the movie as a whole is, I can't deny that the makeup effects showing the injury to Aron's arm are excruciatingly realistic and uncomfortable to look. It was already cringe-inducing when the boulder first landed on his arm and you saw the blood on the side of the canyon-wall and later saw that his thumb was turning a nasty purple color from the lack of circulation but the worst part by far is when he finally decides enough is enough and cuts it off. He first bends it until it breaks in a couple of spots (the brief inside shot of the bone bending makes my skin crawl) with a very loud snap each time and then, he proceeds to cut deeply into the flesh, covering his hand, and his face when he wipes it with blood. He stops momentarily to make himself a makeshift tourniquet and tightens it before continuing to cut and cut, quietly telling himself not to mess it up. It is absolutely nasty and sickening to watch (the makeup effects are by the legendary Tony Gardner) and to emphasize the agonizing pain he feels when he hits the nerve, which you see in gratuitous detail, Boyle puts in a high-pitched, shrill shrieking sound that also gets under my skin. When he finally sucks it up and cuts the nerve, going through the pain until it snaps, you see a silent montage of him screaming, which is just as powerful as if we could actually hear him. After that, he pulls and pulls and cuts some more, spurned on by another vision of his future son, until it finally comes loose and is free, albeit at a massive, painful price.

The music score by A.R. Rahman is pretty stark and sparing for the most part, with no real discernible themes or leitmotifs, which makes sense given that this is a small, intimate human story. No need for anything really big. The most memorable parts of the score are these low-key, guitar pieces that play like when Aron tries to move the rock when he first gets stuck and when he's cutting through his arm, as well as sort of drum bit for when he's getting his stuff out after getting trapped and nice, ethereal music for both his happy and sad memories. Actually, the most memorable piece of the score itself is this big, grand theme that plays when he's finally freed himself and eventually comes across the family who arrange for his rescue. That plays a little too long for me, though, but I like the more subtle, calm bit it segues into the section before the ending credits. The film truly goes for musical inspiration in the songs it plays on its soundtrack, with the opening being set to Never Hear Surf Music Again by Free Blood, another part that really threw me off when I first saw it but, after watching the movie a couple of more times, I've grown to like the unusual beat and the energy that it has. Bill Withers' Lovely Day plays when Aron tries to hoist the rock up with a makeshift pulley and fails, with the upbeat, happy tune making for an interesting contrast with what it's accompanying. Plastic Bertrand's Ca Plane Pour Moi plays during that random flashback with the naked people in the car in the middle of a snowstorm and since it's a random-sounding song itself, it fits with that scene in how much it threw me. Unfortunately, I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of If I Rise, which is performed by Rahman himself, along with Dido. I know it's supposed to be the musical heart and soul of the movie, as it plays when Aron has the meaningful vision of his future son, but I just don't like the way it sounds and I can understand most of the lyrics because of how high-pitched the singing is.

I really hope that this review hasn't come across like a contradictory, nonsensical Noah Antwiler, aka Spoony, type of review but if so, I can't help it; 127 Hours is a movie I have such mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I can definitely praise its technical and visual achievements, with beautiful cinematography, great used of a confined, claustrophobic main setting, well-done and unusual editing, and uncomfortably realistic makeup effects, as well as a decent score and soundtrack and a genuinely good performance by James Franco. But, all that said, since Franco is not one of those actors I'm really into, I ultimately don't find myself caring much about his character's plight, no matter how good he is (he was nominated for an Academy Award, so what do I know?), and Danny Boyle's overly stylized conception of the film, while well-done and sometimes beneficial, ultimately takes me out of the story more often than not. That's really my main issue with the film: I wish it were done in a more straightforward manner rather being so artsy that it feels like it's trying to call attention to itself. I'm well aware I'm in the minority on this, though, and that's okay. If you're one of the many who like it, great. Don't let anyone ever take that away from you. But it's one of those movies that just doesn't do it for me.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Movies That Suck/Franchises: Psycho. Psycho (1998)

Check in, relax, take a shower... and the guy from
Swingers and Fred Clause will jerk it will while
watching you.
I remember being in the Smoky Mountains with my mom and grandmother, as well as possibly some others whom I can't remember now, in October of 1998 when we saw a TV spot for this film (Universal was obviously planning far ahead, as it didn't come out until December). I didn't know what it was and I don't remember the details of it but my mom recognized it as Psycho from certain shots like the eye looking through the peephole. At that point, I had yet to see the original but I certainly knew of it and its sequels, as well as Alfred Hitchcock, so I had some type of knowledge as to what this movie was. I saw a few more TV spots as it got closer to its release, one of which I remembered as it turned the film of a shot of Marion's hand sliding down the bathroom wall during the shower scene negative, and I even got a glimpse of a box-office report on the film when it came out on Entertainment Tonight (one of my parents just happened to have it on) but that was it until I entered middle school a couple of years later, when I began seeing the VHS for it in stores. I would look at the back and read it whenever I saw it, as I always did with the video box for any movie that intrigued me, but I still didn't think much of it until 2000 when I finally saw the original and became a big fan of it. It was around that time when I began to realize that this movie was not only a remake of the original but a virtual carbon copy, which it caught a lot of flack for (despite a fair three-star of five rating, John Stanley spent the entry he devoted to the film in his Creature Features book pointing out how utterly inane it is). Even at that young age of 13 going on 14, I knew that was a very unusual idea. I understood that the idea of a remake was to tell the same story in a different way while, at the same time, keeping enough of the elements so as not to lose the identity of the source, but redoing it shot for shot, line for line? Hmm. I'd be lying, though, if I said I wasn't a little intrigued as to how it turned out and so, when I got the chance to see the movie on USA in the fall of 2003, I took it. I have to say, it was interesting to see different actors speaking the lines that I could recite right off the bat since I'd watched the original so much but, regardless, I don't remember having any reaction to it at all by the time it was over. It was just kind of like, "Okay. I watched a movie." I saw it again a few years later, this time on cable, so I was able to get the full experience, for better or worse, and I still thought it was an interesting experiment but the novelty quickly worse off, as I started to realize how utterly pointless a film it was. Now, after having watched it again, as I hadn't since then, I can honestly say that this movie is nothing more than a soulless, experimental film school project that somehow managed to get studio backing and a very large budget ($60 million or so, according to various sources), which it didn't deserve at all, and is proof of questionable judgement on the director's part.

I don't think I've ever had as much trouble trying to watch a film for a review as I did here (hell, I had an easier time tracking down that Bates Motel movie, which very few people even know about!) Most of the movies I review on here I own on DVD or Blu-Ray, making them readily available, but this was an instance where that wasn't the case, forcing me to find a way to watch it online. I eventually did but it was like pulling teeth, as my internet would act up and become slow as molasses when I would try to stream it and every version of it I found had a weird thing going on with them, with two soundtracks playing at the same time, one of which was several minutes ahead of the other. As a result, you would often get music and sound effects where there shouldn't be any, making for a very odd viewing experience. They were sometimes so loud that I could barely here the dialogue but, fortunately,  I've seen the original so many times (I didn't even have to watch it before I reviewed it) that I knew what was being said. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the buffering on this site was pathetic, meaning that watching this 104-minute movie took much longer than it should have. All of that trouble in order to revisit a movie that I don't like in order to remind myself of just how bad it is.

While his movies may not be my thing, I can't deny that Gus Van Sant does have some talent. I can tell that from what I've seen of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester (although, they feel a lot like the same movie to me, so I guess he does have a habit of copying). But, the reasons that he gives for remaking Psycho the way he did are baffling, to say the least. His main objective behind the film was to make it something of a big budget, film school project: to take a movie, remake it shot-for-shot, line-for-line with different actors and see if it would still have the same impact decades later. I understand that's not an uncommon practice in film schools or even in fan films (you need look no further than that recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark those kids shot throughout the 1980's for proof). But the big difference is that those people have little to no money to work with and they're doing it for themselves either out of love or simply to see what they can do with film, with no intention of releasing what they make to the masses, whereas Van Sant had a budget of around $60 million to make a movie that would be shown on thousands of screens, shooting it on the Universal backlot with fairly big actors, making it all the more pointless and a waste of money and time. Some ideas should simply remain film school experiments and curiosities. Plus, shouldn't the answer to his thesis be obvious? No, it's not going to have the same impact! The original Psycho was a product of its time, a lightning in a bottle situation where that director, that screenplay, and those actors came together to make that film the way it was; trying to recreate it with virtually the same dialogue and camera setups with different actors is not going to have the same impact, no matter how hard you try. Beyond that, Van Sant feels that a remake should be the same film, with very little changes, otherwise you can't call it a remake. He likens it to plays and the theater, where you remake the same material again and again and again, with the only difference being the actors and their individual interpretations. One, plays and movies are two completely different mediums, so that's a pointless argument, and two, as so many others have asked, if that's the case, then what's the point of doing remakes in the first place? Why would you want an almost identical Xerox with different actors when you can just watch the classic whenever you wanted? Another great example of this point is John Moore's remake of The Omen, which is virtually the same as Richard Donner's 1976 original when you get into the second and third acts. When I watched that movie in order to review it, I found myself speaking the lines of dialogue before they were even spoken and predicting what was going to happen before it did because everything was so identical, making me so far ahead of the characters that it was horribly boring to watch and made me yearn to just go watch the original, which I love, again. That's another point: if you've seen the original, you know what's going to happen, making it less effective if the actors are giving good performances (which isn't the case in either of these films) and all the more pointless.

BULLSHIT!
Many people complain when a remake is vastly different from the original but, for me, it all comes down to execution and whether or not it appeals to me personally, as I think it should be for everybody since, again, I don't know why you'd want the same movie redone the exact same way. My favorite horror movie is John Carpenter's The Thing, which is as different from 1951's The Thing from Another World as you can get but, at the same time, is just as effective and well-made. The same goes for David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly: it's very different from the 1958 original, with the only similarity being the same basic story, but is no less effective and disturbing. On the flip side, I don't care for Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween at all, mainly because I don't find it as suspenseful, scary, well-acted, or nicely-crafted, but, if nothing else, I can acknowledge that Zombie did try to do his own thing with it. It just didn't appeal to my personal sensibilities. I can't even say that here. All Van Sant is doing is plagiarizing what Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time, already did so successfully, pointlessly changing things here and there, which I'll get into, and it just comes across as lazy and uninspired. It's not that hard, or inventive, to recreate something when you've got a big budget and a copy of the original on hand for reference. When the film was talked about on an E! special called, 101 Biggest Celebrity Oops!, Richard Roeper made an interesting point: if you're going to remake Psycho, why not try to do a more faithful adaptation of Robert Bloch's original novel? I think that would have made for a more creatively challenging and fulfilling experience than copying and pasting. All of that said, I still can't gauge exactly how Van Sant feels about this movie. One time, he had this to say about it: "If I hold a camera, even if it's in the same place, it will magically take on the character. Our Psycho showed you can't really appropriate. Or you can, but it's not going to be the same thing." I guess that means he found the answer to his thesis with this but here, his tone feels fairly positive, whereas other times he's said things in a more negative and self-deprecating way, saying that he did it this way so no one else would (not entirely effective, then, since John Moore came pretty close with The Omen). He's also said that his cameo outside of Marion Crane's office where he's talking to a man meant to stand in for Hitchcock in his original cameo is him being scolded by him, meaning that he knew in some ways when he was making it that it was a bad idea. And speaking of Hitchcock, his daughter, Patricia, supported this film, saying that her father would have done the same thing had he remade it. As they said on the IMDB trivia page, it feels as if she forgot her father did remake one of his own films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it was hardly shot-for-shot.

One other reason Van Sant gives for doing this film, particularly in shooting it in color, was to appeal to younger audiences who don't care for black-and-white movies and also because he felt that Psycho had lost its impact with the new generation. I've heard that to emphasize this latter point, the special features on the DVD feature interviews with young people on the street who say that they don't know what Psycho is, which I find rather hard to believe. Maybe they haven't actually seen it but the idea that they've never even heard of such a legendary film that is a massive part of American culture, is the most well-known film of arguably the most famous filmmaker ever, basically gave birth to the slasher genre, and has been parodied to death, especially in regards to the shower scene, is ludicrous to me (never mind the fact that it also had three pretty high-profile sequels in the 80's and early 90's). If they were young kids, maybe, but not teenagers, especially if they're into the horror genre. As for the black-and-white issue, I've always found the notion of people refusing to watch a movie for that reason to be very shallow. If it's that big of a deal to them, then that's their problem. That doesn't mean you have to remake every classic black-and-white film in color to appease them, a pointless exercise anyway since, as we've been saying, it's not going to be the same film you're trying to turn them onto. I know I keep harping on that but I can't believe I have to make that point clear.



You know what's ironic about Gus Van Sant's main point for doing this film? It's not the exact same film, shot-for-shot. Scene-for-scene, it is, and as far as the dialogue goes, I would say it's 95% the same, but there are still a number of differences regardless. For starters, the film makes it known right off the bat that it takes place in 1998, with other adjustments made in the story to fit like Marion Crane now stealing $400,000, her new car costing $4,000, and a motel room cost over $35, as well as little details like Lila having a Walkman, more modern cars, clothing, and buildings, etc. Van Sant's intention was to try to make it, like I talked about up above, more accessible to modern audiences, which already goes against his little experiment behind the film. If he intended to see if a movie could have the same impact if it were recreated exactly, wouldn't a part of that involve setting it in 1960 as well? And if he wanted to make it appeal to younger, modern audiences, wouldn't doing it in color be enough, per what he found about them up above? In addition, a number of the shots are set up and executed differently. Many are virtually the same, like the angles on the Bates house and the motel, the blocking of the actors in many of the scenes, and the more notable camera positions like the overhead shots of the shower scene and Arbogast's death, but there are still a number of notable differences. For example, the opening shot is done with a long, moving shot through the city, leading right through the window of the hotel room where Marion and Sam Loomis are, rather than the original's slow pan across the cityscape and the couple of cuts to the shot of the window as the camera goes in. In fact, the way it's done here was how Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted it to look but the camera equipment and the method of doing helicopter shots weren't perfected enough at the time to do it. Van Sant changed it and other parts of the movie to accommodate for advances in technology, which I find to be another way the main purpose of the film is rendered pointless. Another difference comes in the scene in the hotel room. Disregarding the fact that Marion and Sam are in bed this time, there's a random close-up of a fly that's landed on the sandwich she never ate. And for one final example, when Arbogast first arrives at the Bates Motel, the camera is on Norman Bates and pans over to Arbogast's car as he pulls up, whereas Hitchcock kept the camera still and framed both Norman and the car as it drove up together. We'll get into more as we go but for now, I think you get the idea. Some portions of scenes are even dropped altogether, like when Marion tells Caroline she's going to go home and sleep off her headache, Sam and Lila first arriving at Sheriff Al Chambers' house, and portions of the psychiatrist's conclusions at the end, among others, making the film five minutes shorter than the original, even though it has ending credits. Speaking of the psychiatrist, they put in a shot of him walking into Norman's cell and sitting down to talk to him. These may seem like nitpicks but for me, if you're going to try this type of experiment, as pointless as it is, you'd better at least stick to it or else I'm going to question why you said you were going to do it that way to begin with.






Other changes were made to accommodate different attitudes about what was acceptable in movies. Obviously, since it's in color, the shower scene is much more explicitly violent, with the floor of the tub becoming filled with bright red blood, a splatter of it left on the wall, and an added overhead shot of Marion Crane's body completely falling over the rim of the tub to emphasize that she is indeed dead. That leads me to something else: the addition of more explicit sexual content and nudity, like a shot of Viggo Mortensen's bare butt in the opening scene (it's better than seeing his manhood full-on in Eastern Promises), the sounds of other people in the hotel having sex, Lila finding a pornographic magazine in Norman's bedroom in the house, and, most cringe-inducing of all, Norman masturbating while peeping at Marion undressing in her room. That last one has always felt unnecessary and gratuitous to me. I could honestly see Alfred Hitchcock having Norman do that in his film if he could have gotten away with it back then and I'll admit that it's not far-fetched to think of the character doing that (you could argue that was even more of an impetus for the "Mother" side of his mind to take over and kill Marion) but still, I would not have wanted to see Anthony Perkins doing that and I definitely don't want to see Vince Vaughn doing it. Some things are just more disturbing if they're left to the imagination, as in the original where you can just imagine what Norman's thinking while watching her. And finally, there are additions that are just art-housey and strange just because. While Marion is getting stabbed, the film is intercut with random shots of storm clouds gathering, and when Arbogast gets it later on, you see a quick shot of a naked woman wearing a black sleep-mask and what appears to be a thong when he first gets slashed and another of what looks like a sheep standing in the middle of the road during a rainstorm as he starts to fall. I can't begin to theorize what they're meant to symbolize; in fact, when I see them, the only impression I get is that Gus Van Sant threw them in there simply to be abstract for no reason. If that's the case, you might as well have had Terence Malick do the movie.



One thing Van Sant wanted to do in regards to the actors is to "flesh out" the supporting characters, who he felt were nothing more than means to advance the plot in the original. Fair enough, but it's a bit hard to do that when you're restricting your actors to speaking more or less the exact same dialogue and acting out the same scenes, with only a few additions and mainly subtractions. Some of the characters are certainly interpreted differently by the actors but I would hardly call them more fleshed out. If they wanted to do that, they should have at least put in a scene that was deleted from the original where Sam and Lila talk about their suspicions that Marion is probably dead and what losing her would mean for them. Even more stifling is the way I've heard Van Sant supposedly directed them. So intent was he on making this as much of a copy of the original as he could, he timed the dialogue scenes there with a stopwatch and then, whenever his actors went too long or too short in reenacting them, he would cut and make them do it again. Hitchcock was often said to be someone who cared less about acting and character motivations than the mechanics of the camera and editing but this method by Van Sant sounds so unnatural and soulless that it explains why some of the performances feel like the actors are rushing through the dialogue to get to the end of the scene and it hardly makes it easy for them to flesh out their characters more. In a weird way, it validates Van Sant's point about plays being endless remakes of the same story with the only differences being the actors and their nuances because that's the vibe I get when watching this: I'm seeing the same story being acted out by different actors who are speaking virtually the same dialogue but in stilted, unnatural deliveries that make it fall short of the earlier performance.



As iconic and close to perfection as Anthony Perkins' portrayal of Norman Bates was, I don't think it's entirely impossible for another actor to step in and successfully make the role his own, as I feel is the case with any iconic role, and there were a number of notable actors up for it, like Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, and even Henry Thomas, eight years removed from playing the teenaged Norman in Psycho IV: The Beginning, any of whom I think could have pulled it off. But, for whatever reason, Gus Van Sant decided to cast Vince Vaughn, a decision that the world is still baffled by. Vaughn is not an actor I've ever had a major problem with (I like him in The Lost Word: Jurassic Park well enough) but he's hardly one I ever look forward to seeing and I don't find him to be that versatile. Plus, even back then, he was mainly known for comedies like Swingers and it was only around this time that he began doing edgier stuff like Return to Paradise and The Cell, so casting him as Norman was a big gamble, one that, unfortunately, didn't pay off at all. His performance as Norman is just awful and, for me, is on par with Jackie Earl Haley's portrayal as Freddy Krueger in the abysmal remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The only difference is I feel that Haley was a good choice for that role but was hampered by a bad script and uninspired direction, whereas Vaughn is doing nothing but literally filling Perkins' shoes. When I see him, I don't see Norman Bates; I just see Vince Vaughn going through the motions and very badly trying to come across as a complex, disturbed character. Aside from seeing him masturbate, one of the biggest problems with Vaughn's portrayal is how uncomfortably awkward it is. Whereas Perkins came across as a really nice guy, albeit one who's very troubled and stuck in a bad situation, Vaughn acts weird and off-kilter from the beginning. His facial expressions (he often has a less than sincere half-smile), quirky movements, the rambling way in which he talks, and especially the uncomfortable, nerdy-sounding chuckle he often gives off, make him feel like someone who doesn't have much social interaction and is doing the best he can to be accommodating to this woman he's clearly nervously excited to have staying at the motel. It's so bad that it makes Marion Crane, who you can tell is a bit creeped out by him, look like an idiot for not getting the hell out of dodge right then and there. Norman is also more sinister at points than he should be, like when he smiles evilly right after sending Marion's car into the swamp or the overly threatening glare he gives Arbogast when he refuses to let his see his mother, making it hard to sympathize with him (the masturbation scene and everything else hurt him on that score long before, though). And he's not as smart as Perkins because, when he's getting rid of all traces of Marion in Cabin 1, he doesn't check any of the drawers!

Oh, girlfriend, that look doesn't do a thing for ya!

Another thing Vaughn definitely isn't is scary, with the biggest failing there being when you see him dressed up as his mother. Some may find Perkins hard to take seriously when he shows up in the basement at the end in that dress and wig but that crazed smile he gave when he locked eyes with Lila (which he recreated in Psycho III, where it was very unsettling) makes it work, whereas Vaughn... well, look at him! I don't care if he does have a big knife. How am I supposed to be scared of him when he slowly walks out of the shadows in that dress and blonde wig (why blonde?) with that silly, melodramatic expression on his face? In fact, I'd probably die from laughter before he even got a chance to slash at me. Plus, he gets kicked in the face by Lila and is easily subdued by Sam afterward. Yeah, that's a threatening killer. And his attempt recreate the supremely creepy final shot of Norman? Not even close, as you can see, and neither was the subliminal image this time around, which was Mrs. Bates' actual face rather than her skull. But where Vaughn's portrayal ultimately fails is how forced the whole thing he feels. I'm sure he tried to do something with the character but, when he's acting the way he is and speaking like he's trying to rush through a scene, as a lot of the actors do, it comes across like somebody who's phoning it in, which isn't fun to watch. So, yeah, it is like a different theatrical performance in that regard, just one where they didn't have the best leading man or the right supporting players for him to work off of.

Mrs. Bates isn't done that well here, either. The woman who voices her, Rose Marie, doesn't have a voice that's close to being as unpleasantly crone-like in sound as the voice in the original, which was created by blending the voices of three different people together, nor does she sound as cruel. When Norman is talking to her up in the bedroom and she refuses to let him take her downstairs, her attitude is just kind of flippant and sarcastic, like, "Oh, whatever," rather than the sneering, venomous tone in the original where she made it clear that he wasn't dragging her out of her own room. Also, instead of protesting here when he does take her downstairs, she just chuckles sinisterly, which doesn't fit. As for the corpse, it's a decent enough makeup effect (Rick Baker had a hand in creating it), helped out by the addition of a spider crawling across the face, but it doesn't make me recoil and go, "Oh, shit!" like the one in the original did. And again, I can't wrap my head around the idea that Mrs. Bates was a blonde. That hurts the creepiness factor for me severely.


If you've been following this blog for a while now, you'd know that I'm not a fan of Anne Heche and this movie is a big part of that. I don't mind her in certain movies, like Volcano, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and as the voice of Lois Lane in the animated Superman: Doomsday movie, but I don't think she's that great of an actor and I've always felt she was very out of her league stepping into a role that was originally played by Janet Leigh (she's also not nearly as pretty as Leigh was back in the day either but that's beside the point). After looking at the film for the first time in years, I'd say that my biggest problem with her isn't her acting itself but rather the way she portrays Marion Crane. Leigh came across as someone who was, at her core, a good person who simply wanted a better life for herself and made a really bad judgement call in trying to obtain it; Heche is much less innocent and often feels downright devious in her decision to take the money, with the shifty way she eyes it while packing and the more overt joy she gets from thinking about what they'll say when they realize what she's done. In addition, she's not as kind and tolerant as Leigh's version, looking rather exasperated with Caroline's rambling on, more irritated with the highway patrolman than scared, and has an overall more sarcastic and insincere feel to her. As a result, it's hard for me to buy her decision to go back to Phoenix and return the money as being genuine, as she really looks like she wants to get far away from the Bates Motel as soon as possible. Like I said earlier, she seems rather uncomfortable around Norman because of how strange and awkward he is, which makes it hard for me to believe that she genuinely feels for him when he's describing how unpleasant his relationship with his mother is. It feels more like she's simply biding time and trying to humor him. In the end, I really didn't care at all when she got stabbed to death in the shower. Heck, look at that expression on her face when she's dead. Even in death, she looks irritated, as if her last thoughts were, "Oh, shit! I'm going to die," rather than Leigh, who had an expression of sadness and shock, like she didn't know what hit her.

Before I saw it for the first time, I read John Stanley's pretty scathing review in Creature Features and one of the things that stuck out to me was his comment that, in her portrayal of Lila Crane, Julianne Moore came across as angry rather than Vera Miles' more worried and anxious performance. He's right, too. When she first walks into Sam Loomis' hardware store to ask him where Marion is, she has to apologize for yelling at him rather than getting emotional and crying like in the original. This was a conscious decision on Moore's part, as she wanted Lila to be more aggressive and stronger, but it hurts the portrayal for me because her line deliveries, such as when she tells Arbogast she came to see Sam on, "Not even a hunch. Just hope," or when she tells the sheriff that she thinks there's something wrong happening at the Bates Motel, feel less genuine and more like she wants to find Marion to kick her ass more than to help her get out of the trouble she's gotten into. And she's one of the actors whose line deliveries feel rushed and forced, another testament as to why this was a bad idea overall. The one thing I'll give Moore's portrayal is that here, it does feel like Lila really can take care herself when she goes into the Bates house, as seen during the climactic struggle where she kicks Norman in the face, but that also makes it hard to worry for her safety when she goes in there by herself. If anything, Norman should be afraid of her!

The prime example of how impossible it was for the actors to flesh out their characters under these circumstances is Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of Sam Loomis. Whereas John Gavin was a pretty bland and inexperienced contract player, Mortensen is a very gifted actor who's quite adept at giving memorable and nuanced performances (you need look no further than his movies with David Cronenberg as proof). However, he's not able to do much to expand the role he's given other than to appear completely naked in the opening scene and to get across that he likes listening to music while he and Lila are waiting for Arbogast. He does have more personality and emotion to him than Gavin did (I like his more emphatic delivery when he tells Lila why she can't just go up to the Bates house), as he looks genuinely floored at what he's hearing when he learns of Marion's disappearance and theft, and he's able to bring to the role that sort of easy charm he often has, but that's about all he is able to do with it. He's not even able to be the hero at the end of the film like Gavin was, as his attempt to subdue Norman from killing Lila almost results in him getting killed, with Lila having to save him by kicking Norman, preventing him from picking back up his dropped knife.

I swear, this damn movie tends to make me think of the Jurassic Park movies because, not only did Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore co-star in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but you also have William H. Macy, who'd go on to appear in Jurassic Park III, as Arbogast. In any case, Macy was the one actor who Stanley gave credit to in that aforementioned review of his and it's easy to see why, because he is quite good. The main reason for that is because Macy decided going in that he couldn't do better than Martin Balsam and made a decision not to stray too far from what he did. He manages to capture the same wit, sharpness, and easygoing attitude that Balsam projected and is one actor whose performance isn't stifled by having to match the timing of the original's scenes, thanks to his sheer talent and the fact that his is one of the meatier supporting roles. One thing about him that is rather off is how he's dressed in the same type of old-fashioned, tweed suit that Balsam was, making him feel out of place in a film that takes place in 1998. In addition, he gets one change of dialogue that got my attention as being unintentionally funny. In the original, Arbogast makes the comment, "If it doesn't gel, it isn't aspic," but Gus Van Sant felt the word "aspic" was too old-fashioned and had him say instead, "If it doesn't gel, it isn't Jell-O." I'll admit, I didn't know what was aspic was until I looked it up, so I guess it is old-fashioned nowadays, but at least it never made me snicker where I shouldn't have. I'm sorry, but no actor, no matter how talented they are, can keep me from smirking at that Jell-O line, as it's something you don't expect to hear in this context. Also, "aspic" is outdated, but "inordinately" isn't? And unfortunately, as we'll get into later, Arbogast's death scene here doesn't have the same impact as the original, through no fault of Macy's, though.



The actor I felt the most pity for was Robert Forster as the psychiatrist at the end. Forster is a good actor, which you'd know if you've ever seen Alligator, but his delivery of the explanation of Norman's psychosis, which is cut down a little bit here, is stilted and emotionless. He honestly looks like he couldn't care less about what he's telling them and his discovery of how disturbed of a person Norman is didn't affect him at all. According to a deleted bit from the Psycho Legacy documentary, Forster had to do this speech over fifty times because he kept falling short of the length of the original (which is confusing, because he doesn't say every single line, some of which were pretty important, in my opinion, like what exactly made Norman kill Marion) and so, he probably stopped caring and tried to get through it as fast as he could and it shows. In short: it's a far cry from the memorably passionate and energetic speech that Simon Oakland delivered nearly forty years earlier. Philip Baker Hall makes for a suitable enough stand-in for John McIntire as Sheriff Al Chambers, managing to capture the same type of easy authority and rational way of thinking, although his role is cut down, with his only major scene being when Sam and Lila go to see him. The same goes for Rance Howard, the father of Ron and Clint Howard, as Marion's employer, George Lowery. This film's version of Tom Cassidy (Chad Everett) is a much bigger lecher than his counterpart in the original, as there's nothing at all subtle about his hitting on Marion. For instance, when Cassidy says, "Tomorrow's the day, my sweet little girl," it's clear that he wasn't actually talking about Marion and that her getting the wrong idea maybe had an influence in making him flirt with her; here, he looks right at Marion when he says and his tone of voice makes his intentions clear, despite his insistence that he was talking about his daughter (he talks like that about his daughter?) That's to say nothing of the way he eyeballs Marion while talking to her (look at him; are those not bedroom eyes?), the smoothness of his voice, and the way he assures that he can keep his mouth shut if he needs to. And there's an added line where, after he tells Marion she needs a weekend in Las Vegas, "The playground of the world," and Marion says she's going to spend that weekend in bed, Cassidy comments, "Only playground to beat Las Vegas," which was in Joseph Stefano's original script but had to be cut because it was deemed too risqué back then. Seriously, could this guy be more obvious? I'll give him this, though: I can see it working for him better than Frank Albertson in the original.


Caroline (Rita Wilson), the other secretary working for Mr. Lowery and the character who was originally played by Pat Hitchcock, is notably much more of an airhead here. I don't know quite how to describe it but she feels very phony-baloney in the way she acts, like the kind of patronizing way she asks Marion if she has a headache and how, after Cassidy goes into Lowery's office, she melodramatically embraces one of mounds of money before telling Marion that he was flirting with her because, "I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring." The one actor who looks and feels almost exactly like his counterpart in the original is James Remar as the highway patrolman. When he's looking right at the camera with those sunglasses, it wouldn't be farfetched for you to think that what you're looking at is a colorized image from the 1960 film. He does a fair enough job acting-wise too, able to come across as unintentionally menacing as Mort Mills, although his voice is a bit too monotone for me. Finally I have to mention Charlie (James LeGros), the used car dealer who sells Marion a replacement car. This guy is really awful and has none of the fast-talking, energetic charisma John Anderson had, nor does he seem all that suspicious of Marion when she agrees to play the $4,000 in cash. It feels like a very phoned-in performance.






In case you haven't noticed it from the images you've seen so far, the film's color palette is not very pleasant to look at. The colors are vivid but the thing is they're very tacky-looking, with lots of bright whites, pinks, oranges, and greens, particularly in Marion's clothes, and it all looks pretty freaking ugly. Even the reds are really bright, with the blood in the shower scene sometimes looking pink or even orange (reminds of the problems with the blood in the original Dawn of the Dead), and there are a few environments built with ugly neon lights, particularly the Bates Motel itself, that add to this feeling of tackiness. It makes the movie feel very sleazy, much more so than the already seedy original, which, if that was the intent, then good job. But, otherwise, the use of color doesn't add anything to the film and actually detracts from the atmosphere the original had. In color, you don't get the deep shadows and levels of blackness that you do with black-and-white, making the scenes in and around the motel and the house less impactful. I mean, seriously, that shot of Norman watching the car sink into the swamp isn't nearly as ominous with that pretty, deep-blue nighttime sky behind him. And did seeing the crisscrossing bars during the opening titles in bright green add anything that the gray ones didn't? I doubt it. Even sadder than that, though, is that they used green screen in certain shots like Alfred Hitchcock did with rear-projection, such as Arbogast falling down the stairs and such, and here, they're even more noticeable because the film's in color and jarring because you expect a movie made in the 90's to be more refined in that department. Maybe this was another way Gus Van Sant tried to make it as close to the original as possible (for instance, William H. Macy wanted to fall more realistically than the way Martin Balsam did but Van Sant insisted on doing it the same way) but in the end, it makes it look amateurish more than anything else.




The production design is pretty decent overall. All of the environments look okay, like places you would see in everyday life, as was the case in the original, and I like some of the additions and modern updates, like how Sam's living space in the back of his hardware store has a beaded curtain, some deep blue lights, and a record player... that is, except for the Bates Motel and the house. I know there are motels nowadays that look like this but the way the sign looks is not at all ominous like the original sign and those big neon letters atop the motel look downright silly. And once again, there are lots of bright whites and pinks in the paint scheme, which make it look like a tacky brothel than a motel. But the biggest failing is the redesign of the house, which they built right in front of the actual house on the Universal backlot. I don't know why they didn't just use it because this thing they built doesn't have the same sinister feel that the one built for the Hitchcock movie, which is also iconic, does. As far as the interior goes, like Norman's room and his mother's bedroom, it looks alright and is more or less similar to the original interior (though not as creepy to me), save for the cellar, which is made much larger and looks more like some kind of workshop, with shelves filled with stuffed birds here and bottles of chemicals, as well as a big, glass case filled with living birds, reminiscent of an interior display you'd see at a zoo, which is Mrs. Bates' corpse is found sitting in front of. It highly suggests that this is where Norman does his taxidermy and that those birds are his readily available "materials." I'm not sure what to think of this addition. It is interesting to see and I like the expansion on Norman's hobby but, like so much in this movie, it defeats the main purpose for making this movie the way they did.





As much as I love the original Psycho and think that the shower scene is a great sequence that deserves its legendary status, I can't deny that, because it's been talked about so much and has been imitated so many times throughout the decades by numerous slasher movies, it has lost a lot of its shock value. I was fortunate enough to see the movie for the first time before I really got into the modern age of horror and the internet, so it still had impact on me, but, the thing is, if someone has seen a good majority of or even a few of the movies that inspired it before deciding to go into it, they've also more than likely heard and seen every little detail of it and so, they're not going to be hit that hard by it. A remake has it even worse because not only will you have to contend those jaded horror fans but you also have fans of the original who already know what's coming and are not going to be affected by your recreation of it, no matter how gory it is. But, all that said, it's still hard to believe how unimpressive this film's version of the shower scene is. It's pretty close in design to the original (although the buildup feels a bit longer) in that you never see the knife puncture the flesh but rather, all you get is a montage of the killer slashing and Marion reacting, and Gus Van Sant recreates all of the memorable camera angles, but it lacks the suddenness and the kinetic, frantic energy that, when it's over, leaves you wonder what just happened. The editing isn't nearly as fast, something that Van Sant tries to make up for by playing with the speed of the film, doing a slightly sped up push-in towards Marion's mouth as she screams and speeding the actual attack up to try to make it seem more chaotic, but it doesn't work and actually makes it feel like a very cheap movie. The slashing itself feels slower, like he's trying to get the feel and impact of each stab as the knife goes into her, which makes it all the more boring, and the random shots of storm clouds and a close-up of her eye dialing after the attack's over just feel overly arty for the sake of it. And lastly, shooting this in color and seeing the red blood fill the bottom of, as I said earlier, didn't add a thing to it. In fact, when you see the knife-wielding figure with his face blacked out standing there in that light pink gown (what is it with this movie and the color pink) and blonde wig, it's not even close to being as scary.


Arbogast's death is botched even worse than the shower scene. The buildup to it is still virtually the same but, like the shower scene, when the actual attack begins, it's not as fast-paced and sudden as the original, and those quick shots of that woman, which I still don't understand, are not only pretentious but lessen the impact as they keep it from being one long shot from his face getting slashed to his falling down the stairs like before (Van Sant actually had an opportunity for more of an impact than before here because he had Arbogast get slashed three times across the face; imagine how that would have looked if it were one shot of that happening to him in addition to the fall). His actual fall is a prime example of the bad green screen work in this film as it looks funky and it's really sad when a movie from 1960 looks more realistic, especially when it was deliberately stylized. And, following a quick POV shot from him of the killer walking down the stairs towards him, rather than letting out a disturbing scream of pain as he's stabbed to death at the bottom of the stairs, William H. Macy just grunts with each stab, which does not work nearly as well (Anne Heche's screams in the shower scene weren't as disturbing as Janet Leigh's, either).

The climax is probably where the film is the most drastically different from the original. Following Lila's discovery of the pornography in Norman's room and Norman and Sam's conversation becoming more heated (the timing of which is very different), Norman whacks him in the face with a golf-club rather than it being a short struggle followed by a hit to the back of the head and heads up to the house, where Lila decides to investigate the basement rather than get out when he's upstairs. That's when we see the vastly different-looking cellar and Lila's discovery of Mrs. Bates' corpse, followed by Norman showing up dressed like her and looking ridiculous. Instead of running at Lila, he slowly goes in for the kill, when he's knocked in the back of the head by Sam and the two of them have a pretty violent struggle, with Sam grabbing Norman from behind and slamming him into the shelves to try to make him drop the knife, which he does when they tumble to the floor. He tries to get it while he has Sam on the floor but Lila kicks him in the face, giving Sam the opportunity to more thoroughly subdue him.

Not surprisingly, the film completely reuses Bernard Herrmann's original score, although some of the pieces were re-orchestrated by Danny Elfman, who had done the music for Gus Van Sant's two previous films (and who also tried to warn him that this movie was a bad idea). Like Jerry Goldsmith's re-orchestration of the shower theme for the opening of Psycho II and the apparent re-orchestrations of both it and the main title theme for Psycho IV: The Beginning, the way the music is redone here makes it less effective in my opinion. A big reason why the shower scene here doesn't work that well is because the music isn't as loud and full as the original but rather, sounds hollow, with no echoing that makes the shrieking more impactful and it's slower as well. It definitely doesn't have the same power that it did in the original when it's reused for Arbogast's death. There it was sudden, loud, and had an echoing quality that made it sound nightmarish, whereas here, it sounds the same as it did in the shower scene, i.e. lackluster. The main title theme sounds better, though. It certainly sounds more akin to the original here than it did in Psycho IV, where it was slowed down, keeping the same fast rhythm and energy, although it's still not as effective because it has a more modern sound to the strings that actually sounds less clear. It's weird, nobody could ever play that main theme the way Herrmann did and somehow, it got replaced by a slower version on the official soundtracks, which I don't understand. The rest of the score sounds identical to the way it was before to me, meaning it wasn't re-orchestrated, although pieces are sometimes put in spots where there wasn't any music originally, like when Norman sends Marion's car off into the swamp and when the psychiatrist is explaining the depths of his psychosis at the end, and they're sometimes arranged around in different ways.

There are some songs on the soundtrack, although most of them I didn't pick up on when I re-watched the movie because of the weird way the film's audio was done on the website I watched it on. Apparently, Rob Zombie's Living Dead Girl can be heard playing when Marion stops at the car dealership but I didn't hear it, which irritated me because that's the only song by him I like (I only ever heard it because it's on the soundtrack for Bride of Chucky, which came out the same year). The ending credits feature an interesting piece of music called Weepy Doughnuts by Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz, which is an odd electronic, guitar-based arrangement that features a couple of recreations of Herrmann's main title theme. It's very odd and rather creepy-sounding at points and, to me, is actually one of the film's best aspects, as is the way the ending credits expand on the original's final shot of Marion's car being dragged out of the swamp, with the camera slowly moving upwards as the police wrap up their investigation of the crime scene and drive off, ending on a silent shot of the swamp with the highway in the background. That's very effective, reminding me of the actual beginning of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and is something I think Alfred Hitchcock himself would've liked (too bad the rest of the movie is nothing more than a pointless copy of his film).

I'm really hoping that this is the title from this movie. It and
the original's are absolutely identical, making it hard to
determine which one you have while looking for images.
I don't know what more I can say about this film, as everybody already knows it as a prime example of uncreative, redundant filmmaking. Above all the big issues, like the lackluster performances, the bad cases of miscasting, especially with Vince Vaughn, the unneeded subliminal shots and more graphic sexual moments, the ugly-looking color palette, the uninspired production design of the Bates Motel and the house, and Bernard Herrmann's score being completely reused, with a few of the themes redone in ways that aren't as effective, the biggest issue with this movie is the thinking behind it. Gus Van Sant says that he wanted to do a big budget, film school project by remaking a movie shot-for-shot and seeing if it would still have the same impact, as well as to make it more accessible to modern audiences who claim they've never heard of Psycho and don't want to watch black-and-white movies, two ideas that already contradict themselves to me, but he changes so much of it, shooting the scenes and blocking them in different ways while deleting others wholesale, doing the same with certain lines of dialogue, putting in images that weren't there before, and wants to have his actors flesh out their characters when they're still saddled with virtually the same lines of their predecessors and further stifled by having to match the lengths of the scenes from the original, that, in the end, I don't know what exactly he was trying to accomplish. Maybe some understood his reasons better but they just flew over my head. The film has some things I do like, like William H. Macy, the expansion on the idea of Norman's pastime, the Weepy Doughnuts music, and the ending shot, but, other than that, it's a movie I not only don't like but can't respect because it's a pointless carbon copy of one of the best horror films of all time by arguably the greatest director of all time.