Retro Rental: 'Sinister' Is as Freaky and Fragile as 'One Hour Photo'

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Summit Entertainment/Fox Searchlight

[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you The Retro Rental,  an older film on disc or download.]

Around the time I saw the new Ethan Hawke-led horror film, 'Sinister' -- a film a lot of critics seem to like, and, at the most begrudgingly, a film that I wish were better, if that makes sense, as it has some smart things in it -- I was cleaning out my desk in a fit of procrastination. Among the USB keys of Alexandria and product registration cards was a Kodax Max camera, six of its 27 pictures used, its bright disposable body either shining yellow or solid utilitarian black, with a "Develop before 09/2005" emblazoned on it. And while it wasn't a series of reels of Super-8 being dropped off by an elder God who feeds on both story and sorrow as in 'Sinister,' that Kodak Max camera out of nowhere did make me turn my head and ask: Hmm, what's on you?

And not to pay a left-handed compliment to 'Sinister,' but it made me want to re-watch 'Manhunter,' Michael Mann's 1986 directorial debut that also involves film as a force of death and madness, and the Kodak Max from the unknown past sat there and made me want to go to the one-hour photo and that, of course, made me think of a film that would fit in among 'Sinister' and 'Manhunter' and 'Peeping Tom.' 'One Hour Photo' was Mark Romanek's 2002 directorial debut, coming on the heels of some astonishing video work and before some astonishing bad luck as a director before he came back with the brilliant 'Never Let Me Go' in 2010. 'Photo' stars Robin Williams as  Seymour Parrish, a too-friendly employee at a one-hour photo stand in a busy suburban shopping complex who quietly enjoys his unique perspective on the happiness of the smiling moms and dads who entrust him to truly capture the glory of their kids' birthdays or soccer games.

Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan are young, and in love and parents, and customers of Seymour's. His favorite customers. And when Seymour sees trouble in paradise, he acts like a guardian devil, lashing out over what he sees in the pictures and, eventually, creating new pictures. Because pictures are history, and as Sy wisely notes with chilling clarity, photos are a way to freeze time and capture life: "No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget." And he has control of the photos.

The film has great work by Williams, and Romanek, like Mann, loves to find angular poetry in the ez-shop prefab suburbs and find hymns in the hum of the fluorescent lights. I saw it at Sundance, in 2002. Maybe those photos are from 2002 -- the expiration date mean's it's not impossible. Maybe they could still be developed. Doesn't every old packet of photos, every dusty reel of Super-8, haunt us in its way?

Film is fragile by definition -- the dry rustling way it can coil, its incandescent potential for flame, its reverse-represented vision of the world as seen through the lens soaked into it with silver and chemicals. But it also has a slick, slithery wet uncoiling, glistening with the chemicals that make it fleetingly permanent and drying strong enough to withstand years of being pawed at within the photo album or make quicksilver spins lithely through the reels of a projector. 'One Hour Photo' is, in its way, a relic of a bygone age -- when was the last time you took a roll of film in to be developed? At the same time, re-watching its sharp and red-lit Kodachrome chills had made me turn to look at the Kodak Max camera I mentioned earlier. For a brief moment, a mind fed on too many horror films and thrillers wondered what could possibly be inside that camera from the past, laying there quarter-shot, waiting to surprise me from the past and the darkness to cut me with a tiny slice of life?

'One Hour Photo' is available on DVD, Amazon Rental and iTunes.

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