The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

Kubrick’s vision of isolation and madness remains remarkably potent, a horrific gaze at brooding guilt and hatred amidst a snow storm of ideas, memories, and nightmares. Because of this push pull between stirring creativity and relentless doubt, The Shining is an unquestioned masterpiece, a horror film consumed by harsh angles, deep spaces, and disintegrating minds. It unravels methodically, like all of Kubrick’s films, but there’s also a painful intimacy hiding underneath the quotable lines and grandiose stylistics, an ax of putrified resentment that potentially infects us all in some way or another.

Jack Torrance’s psychology grows more ambiguous as his actions become more violent, creating a monster both familiar and foreign, someone whose simmering outbursts resemble a collective deja-vu of rage too disturbing to acknowledge fully.

Interview (Buscemi, 2007)

Steve Buscemi’s smug D.C. journalist gets into a series of verbal fisticuffs with Sienna Miller’s It Girl actress after their initial interview goes awry, and the proceeding interlude borders on warfare. Despite booze, drugs, and innuendo, each manipulator holds their own, delivering countless barbs of potent wisdom that initially feel well-meaning.

Buscemi constantly keeps us guessing as to what’s real, fabricated, or a mix of the two, and the leads perform this dance marvelously. Interview is the kind of throwback theatrical movie where two characters slither around the truth, worm into sensitive spots, and unleash a plague of vindictiveness on each other – the last wo(man) standing wins.  I haven’t seen the Theo van Gogh original, but Buscemi’s re-visioning feels altogether American – the culture of celebrity seems a perfect bedfellow for the corroding ethics of high end political paparazzi.

Silkwood (Nichols, 1983)

Karen Silkwood was a nuclear power plant employee, potential whistle blower, and union organizer who died suspiciously after agreeing to meet with a reporter from the New York Times to discuss contamination and faulty medical practices occurring at her workplace. Meryl Streep plays Silkwood as a midwestern gal of grit and sass in Mike Nichols stirring film adaptation, giving the doomed heroine a genuine sadness throughout her multiple exposures to plutonium, criticism from fellow workers, and separation from her crumbling family. Silkwood doesn’t break the mold for this particular sub-genre, but it’s a grueling personal ordeal and Nichols instills a disturbing ambiguousness to the treachery involved, painting Karen into corner after corner, showing an isolated woman trying to transcend society’s indignation for her growing ambition. The performances from Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher are all top notch, but we should expect nothing less from the director responsible for so many great performance-driven films (Postcards From the Edge being my personal favorite).

Mad Max (Miller, 1979)

Summer ’08 will be my time to revisit the old days, the hard-nosed academic days, in an effort to create a fresh piece of research/sample writing for upcoming Fall applications. I’ve set my sights on the films of Aussie George Miller, a director whose motifs and themes are becoming more crucial with each passing day – just take a look at your local gas prices. Instead of writing reviews for these films, I’ll be posting images crucial to my examination of Miller’s filmography. Here’s a few that highlight my favorite Miller motif: brutal technology framed by natural beauty, from his “debut” feature Mad Max.

Blu-ray DVD: Terminator 2: Judgement Day

“Cameron isn’t evil, he’s not an asshole like Spielberg. He wants to be the new De Mille. Unfortunately, he can’t direct his way out of a paper bag. On top of which the actress is awful, unwatchable, the most slovenly girl to appear on the screen in a long, long time. That’s why it’s been such a success with young girls, especially inhibited, slightly plump American girls who see the film over and over as if they were on a pilgrimage: they recognize themselves in her, and dream of falling into the arms of the gorgeous Leonardo.”

– Jacques Rivette on Titanic, during an interview found at Senses of Cinema

Quotes like these always get me riled up, not because I think Rivette is wrong (everyone is entitled to an opinion), but because the statement itself seems to resonate with purposeful and abrasive hyperbole uttered simply to make the interviewee feel superior. I definitely get the De Mille reference (Cameron can be a visual blowhard), but the “can’t direct himself out of a paper bag” line doesn’t add up in my book. Cameron is one of the few directors who can wonderfully balance epic action sequences and meaningful character development (see Terminator, Aliens, and T2), something few Hollywood directors are able to achieve. I even went back and watched T2 tonight just to make sure I wasn’t crazy (the film holds up as one of the best action films of all time). Even Titanic has its great moments as a doomed love story and brutal disaster film. Is Rivette only speaking about Titanic with these remarks, or Cameron’s filmography as a whole? And just for the record, why is Spielberg an asshole? Anyone out there able/willing to clarify, because this interview in particular reads as something akin to instinctual blabbering. And Jacques, Kate Winslet wants an apology.

Be Kind Rewind (Gondry, 2008)

After the aggravating artificiality of The Science of Sleep, it’s encouraging to see Michel Gondry retain some genuine humanity with his latest film Be Kind Rewind, a semi-fantastical romp surrounding an out of touch video store dealing with changing technologies and infringing developers. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) and his protege Mike (Mos Def) run the failing VHS outlet with little worry, a business framed by a crumbling multicultural neighborhood of well meaning supporting players and kindred spirits. After Mike’s bumbling friend Jerry (Jack Black) becomes magnetized and erases all the tapes, the duo begins to remake certain films using a video camera and loads of creativity (the Ghostbusters example sets the standard right away). Of course, these “sweeded” films become a hit with the working class folk and provide a much needed spark for all involved. Be Kind Rewind depends heavily on this great hook (the exciting homemade remakes) to hang its mostly familiar underdog story. If the entire process feels a bit whimsical and far-fetched, its because Gondry moves deeper into sentimentality and farther away from his patented narrative craziness, which is both a blessing and a curse. Gondry seems enthralled with the montage sequences in particular, including the fascinating juxtaposition of all the films being remade captured in one long, engaging take. This structural digression from plausibility to a magical purity actually makes Be Kind Rewind a worthy throwback to old school Hollywood (Capra is the obvious example), where the hero redeems himself through historical revisionism, in turn finding solace and hope for the future. 

The Happening (Shyamalan, 2008)

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, a daring ecological thriller where Nature fights back against its human trespassers/polluters, functions best as a series of fascinating ideas, scenarios, and what ifs, narrowing the global consequences of human indifference and greed toward the environment to a horrifically personal level. When New Englanders begin committing suicide for no particular reason, the government screams “biological terrorist attack”, sending hordes of people into the countryside looking for safe haven. As the “virus” spreads from population to population, a small group from Philadelphia (led by Mark Walhberg’s banal but well meaning science teacher) travel deep into the heartland while witnessing one brutal incident after another. 

During its best scenes, The Happening creates a tension between survival and isolation, revealing the epic proportions of Nature’s wrath through glimpses of death framed by wind in the trees and menace in the air. These moments signify a silence that feels both natural and calculated, a last ditch warning from one species to another. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s script injects many cliches and moments of comedy in an attempt to lighten the mood, giving critics of all shapes and sizes plenty of ammunition to destroy what is truly an enigmatic and dynamic film (and don’t worry, they have!). The Happening might not be as ambitious as The Village or as clever as The Sixth Sense, but the film is downright refreshing considering how it dares to confront the many levels of death occurring around the planet today. Shyamalan envisions a green world where the victim plays a part in their own demise and the killer constantly sustains a certain beautiful ambiguity, a vibrant and fitting clash that never looses its poignancy. Like Romero’s Diary of the Dead, The Happening asks if the human race deserves a second chance after a self-made disaster, a valid and unsettling question considering the damage we’ve done and currently do so effortlessly.