The Adjustment Bureau

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A rare cerebral and hearty science fiction film with charm and thrills, though weakened by the demands of standard Hollywood plotting.

Review:  Here is a movie that works on levels usually rendered inaccessible by genre-specific direction.  It’s got brains, drama, thrills, and most refreshingly, heart.  Capraesque Americana, Kafkaesque paranoia and classic Hollywood romance blend together with surprising smoothness.  It reaches sci-fi conceptual heights, but remains accessible to a wide audience.  It’s heartwarming, entertaining, intriguing and memorable.

Its chief flaws are trade-offs due to this balancing act.  The paranoid elements gradually soften as the plot mechanics make the titular organization more familiar, and even somewhat friendly.  The Americana of its protagonist’s political ambitions fades out as he falls in love.  So while it lets down two parts in favor of the whole, the film still works because of the strong relationship at its center.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and elevate writer-director George Nolfi’s script, which is not bad on its own, into something more believable.  Because we can so easily sympathize with them, the Bureau’s effort to keep them apart — for reasons not unsympathetic on their end — creates real tension.  We may be torn between the Bureau’s point-of-view and our hope for the lovers, but we are never confused.  We know how we want this story to end, and Nolfi executes this dramatic dénouement quite well.  He picks the perfect moment to fade to black.

On top of everything, he manages to invoke an oft-derided (for good reason) but classic plot twist, the Deus Ex Machina, in just the right way.  Done badly, the Deus Ex Machina cheats us, but done well, it seals the story with mystery.  Consider ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the wrath of God sequence — any other ending, including the one the filmmakers had originally planned, would lack punch and punctuation.

Philosophically, the film’s free will vs. determinism narrative presents a reasonable compromise.  It works as less of a dialog and more of a polemical allegory with obvious Judeo-Christian influences.  This is not necessarily a weakness, as this particular story begs for a conclusion, but there are films that handle the issues in a more compelling way.

Overall, the film is an above-average success.  What it lacks in subtlety and impact it makes up for in entertainment value.  This is sci-fi done right.

Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.

Children Of Men

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A perfectly realized sci-fi meditation.

Review:  Science fiction gives us an excuse to stretch reality just thin enough to give us a window into our souls.  It seems we’re quite scared of what we’ve found, which explains the common use of science fiction as pure fantasy, to escape, rather than explore.  ‘Children of Men’ shows us what we have to fear, and why we have to hope.  It is an apocalypse — literally, an unveiling.

In the not-too-distant future, every woman on Earth is infertile, and every child is either matured or dead.  Without children, it seems, humankind has gone insane, with every ounce of hatred boiling beneath the surface, once sublimated, now unleashed without regard.  Only a few last havens exist, at least in the minds of the surviving members of what can loosely be called “society”.  A British cubical denizen named Theo, the protagonist, finds an occasional refuge at the home of an aging liberal activist, where he listens to the old man philosophize and dream as Theo himself no longer can.  Before the world fell apart around his ears, he was an idealist, along with his former lover, who now operates a rebellion against the fascist government in Britain.  She contacts him, seeking his help in smuggling a young refugee girl out of the country, and Theo learns that the girl is pregnant, a beacon of hope for the world.  Soon, it’s up to him, alone, to protect the mother and child from selfish interests on all sides, and take them to a rendezvous with the perhaps mythical Human Project.

Common wisdom says that you don’t know something’s value until it is gone.   It’s difficult to overestimate procreation’s importance in the human scheme.  When the system breaks down and fails to produce a new generation, the proverbial human castle comes crashing down, first in the mind and then in the matter, despite everything our hands have wrought.  All of this is obvious.  Maybe it’s the deepest, darkest ancestral fear in our species.  ‘Children of Men’ is important because it unveils our most basic humanity, the fragility beneath the façade of culture, religion, politics, technology, what have you.  It is in part a retelling of the Christian Nativity story.  For the divine person, there is no greater humility or sympathetic expression than incarnation.  In the Gospels, God’s embrace of our condition is literal.  In ‘Children of Men’, it is subtext, but nonetheless plain.  The refugee’s child isn’t God, but she is evidence of the divine hand at work, a living apocalypse that could stop all wars, if only we’d listen to her cries.

Director Alfonso Cuarón and his team chose to realize this story as concretely as possible.  Steadicam tracking shots and extended takes composed of multiple overlapping elements grant the film real presence.  It becomes difficult to look away.  The production design is superb, highly complex, and completely believable.  The filmmakers obviously strove to remove as many stylistic obstacles between the movie and the viewer as they could.  The film’s action sequences outclass most others in the genre.  The choreography is breathtaking, and it’ll certainly have you asking “How in God’s name did they do that?”, especially during the climatic battle which comes to us in nearly a single take.

‘Children of Men’ is awesome.  What a simple, beautiful story, realized so well, without hiccups or compromise.  It induced in me, on each viewing, a sense of oddly worshipful melancholy I have seldom experienced.  I intend to make this movie a personal Christmas tradition.

Cult Classic: Tron

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An innovative milestone and the father of many philosophical tangents, ‘Tron’ is valuable, aesthetically intriguing science fiction.

 

Review:  Science fiction is at its best when it permits us to review — literally, “see again” — the real world.  It’s not always about illuminating philosophy.  Sometimes it’s about challenging us to believe, just as long as we may, that there is an unseen world that coexists with our own.  It’s not necessarily that this supposed world is supernatural, but by contrast it seems incredible.  For Disney’s bomb-turned-classic ‘Tron’, the tagline sums up this conceit magnanimously: “A world inside the computer, where man has never been — never before now.”  Chalk that up as one of my favorite taglines in cinema history, just as provocative as “You will believe a man can fly”.  Does the movie measure up to it?

To my delight, yes.  It is a successful example of intelligent conceptualization and world-building.  The best word I can use to describe ‘Tron’ is iconic.  It revels in its imagery, visual and conceptual, to the plot’s degradation.  The story is good, but it meanders, if only to allow the audience the privilege of seeing all the CGI that 1982 could muster.  Yes, today, the film looks dated, but this isn’t a bad thing.  It adds a layer of nostalgia to the cake.  What’s great about the primitive CGI, in itself, is that it lets us see the naked architecture.  Lines are all-important in ‘Tron’s aesthetic.  This is, after all, “The Grid”, the combat zone of arcade games of yore.  There’s a distinctive spirit to vintage arcades, and ‘Tron’ may be its definitive cinematic incarnation.

I said the story is good, and not just because it complicates and untangles satisfactorily.  ‘Tron’ is philosophically complex, yet it doesn’t explore every question raised, sparking mental tangents which I’m sure have contributed to the film’s growing popularity.  The world of ‘Tron’ is populated by programs, each of whom has a relationship with its human user, which the programs perceive from afar as gods.  This has sobering implications in real life, with computer technology evolving at an incredible rate, and a growing number of scientists assuring us that true artificial intelligence, nay, artificial life is just around the proverbial corner.  How will we respond to a thinking being that recognizes us as its life-giver?  ‘Tron’ doesn’t answer this question.  Raising it may be enough.  But I digress.  In ‘Tron’, programs are created in the user’s image, literally.  They act as the user’s avatar, yet think of themselves as distinct persons, perhaps unaware of their resemblance to the humans they idolize.  The film’s plot centers on the Master Control Program, or MCP, who rebels against his user and seeks to extend his control beyond his system.  To this end, the MCP cuts off all contact between programs and users, calling the vital relationship an obsolete superstition.  He even goes so far as to pit rebel programs against each other in gladiatorial combat.  Jeff Bridges’ character, user Kevin Flynn, tries to confront the MCP and gets digitized into the computer world for his trouble.  He is now a user incarnated as a program, and indistinguishable from any other except in his power to manipulate data.  He fights to defeat the MCP and restore the programs to their users.  The film is, quite obviously, heedlessly unsubtle in its use of religious concepts.

‘Tron’ is an exciting, bizarre, surreal and innovate piece of celluloid.  It’s a milestone in CGI development and our popular conception of cyberspace.  It may have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, ahead of the game in its first release, but it’s plain to see that ‘Tron’ is not just another pleasant diversion.  It helps us review our world.  That’s why we go to the movies.

The Book of Eli

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An example of a genre film elevated by powerful truths.

 

Review:  When I set out to review this film, I inclined to rate it three stars.  I liked it, but there wasn’t that glee that usually comes from watching a really great movie.  However, upon further reflection, ‘The Book of Eli’ clearly deserves the honor of a full four.  I set out to review it, and its tantalizingly subtle greatness got to me.  There are layers here, man.  Caves of treasure to plunder.

At first look, it’s your typical pretentious post-apocalyptic science fiction story, with visuals and production design similar to ‘Mad Max’ and sundry films, all manner of mangas, comic books, and what have you.  Lots of martial arts, guns, car chases, and explosions, all set in a desert wasteland made so by nuclear holocaust.  An old drillbit, if you will, worn down from spinning in the groove too long.  Thankfully, the cast’s more than up for the challenge.  The protagonist, Denzel Washington’s Eli, is a dangerous, solitary journeyman who’s got the world’s last Bible (old King James Version, naturally). Eli wants to take it somewhere safe.  He believes God told him to.  He enters a town in search of water, and crosses swords with Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, the educated de-facto leader who covets the sacred book.  Carnegie wants the book for reason of its influence, which of course he can exploit for his nefarious ends.  Along the way, Eli gradually lets a local girl, the beautiful Mila Kunis’ Solara, in on his secrets.

The action is superb, and while that gets butts in seats (as does Mila Kunis), the religious nature of the film is difficult to swallow.  So, as Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego in ‘Ratatouille’ may suggest, what we need is a little perspective.

Subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic science fiction, can quickly become stale.  Seeing as they’re built upon more specific rules than your typical genre film, it’s the nature of the beast.  How they are properly refreshed is not necessarily by breaking those rules, but by finding what made a subgenre’s core ideas interesting in the first place.   Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t about the end of the world, but its beginnings, the basics of human society.  The idea central to ‘The Book of Eli’ is one often overlooked in the past century’s popular fiction: discipleship.

Discipleship means imitation.  It is the process by which knowledge is properly transmitted, not as information, but as wisdom, and by which the meaning of one life carries on in another.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in our individualistic, depersonalized society to admit, the desire for discipleship is a natural, indeed crucial part of the human psyche.  If you are never someone’s disciple, it’s analogous to having never experienced childhood.  It leaves us out of balance, without a center.  Prior to the media proliferation that we take for granted in our era, it was the chief method of passing on history, the weight of the human experience.  In an unbroken chain of disciples, there is a depth of wisdom that is foreign to the frission-based postmodern world.  If and when our world comes tumbling down, the master-to-learner dynamic will prove essential.  ‘The Book of Eli’ is a bold affirmation of this basic human relationship.

There’s much more here that’s worthy of reflection, such as the dynamics of religion and power, knowledge and violence, education and class division, sex and survival.  The sad thing about films like ‘The Book of Eli’ is that, due to cultural saturation, they get lost somewhere and aren’t appreciated.  This is a gem worth digging for.

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Classic Review: Halloween (1978)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The film that jumpstarted the “slasher” pictures also happens to be the best.

Review:  There’s some argument about what the first “slasher” movie was. Some point all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in 1960, others believe it was 1974’s ‘Black Christmas’, and some, like myself, say it was John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ in 1978. The surprising success of this low-budget film was certainly what propelled the genre into mainstream popularity. And in all the years since, it remains the best and most frightening of the “slasher” genre.

There’s something wonderfully terrifying about being hunted. It’s a primal fear, deeply rooted in our ancient, primitive past that stays with us to this day. ‘Halloween’ works because of how it plays on this fear. At first our killer, the deranged masked murderer Michael Myers, is but a shadow out in the distance, and his prey, teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), can’t figure out if he’s real or just her imagination. But then, like some predator, Myers weaves his way back and forth, hiding in the shadows, getting ever so closer to his victims. And finally, in the last act of the film is when he at last gives chase in a murderous killing spree.

It’s this pacing that makes this film work. Unlike later “slasher” pictures, which fill to the brim with gruesome murders from start to finish, ‘Halloween’ takes its time, builds tension, and then delivers satisfyingly. The faceless, soulless, and seemingly unstoppable Michael Myers and his eerie presence in the film also instill much fear. A revolutionary character in his day, he is one of the great modern movie villains.

In the years since ‘Halloween’, many a “slasher” has been released. Some have been decent, others bad, and some downright awful. Certainly none have come close to the effectiveness of ‘Halloween’ though. I suggest future filmmakers in this genre look back to it to learn how to make their movies good.

Classic Review: Psycho (1960)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: One of the best horror pictures ever made, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is a perfect use of story and suspense to remind us of our nightmares.

Review: ‘Psycho’ is perhaps the definitive example of the horror genre, and what else would we expect from Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense?  ‘Psycho’ succeeds in the areas that postmodern horror tends to fail.  It’s focused and very intelligent in its approach.  Hitchcock clearly understood that horror is only effective when it corresponds to plausible fears.  That’s not to say that supernatural horror is by nature ineffective; rather, it is only effective so long as it reminds us of the darkness in our dreams.  ‘Psycho’ is scary realistic and evokes our nightmares with the deft usage of cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s unmatched musical score.

A critical flaw in postmodern horror is the use of stock characters that audiences find difficult to believe in.  Every character in ‘Psycho’ is in some way sympathetic.  This is because ‘Psycho’ is not about the sadistic satisfaction of extravagant kills, but examining real evil.  Unlike future slasher films that emphasize the killer’s otherworldly qualities, the villain of this piece, Norman Bates’ Mother, is what we suspect is lurking in the cracks of our civilized society, and too often it’s a justified fear.  Another shortcoming of recent horror is a lack of patience and suspense, which belies a lack of faith in the story’s substance.  Horror is about story; as exploitation, it has no value.   Hitchcock understood that a thousand shocking moments numb audiences, but a single moment coupled with suspense endures forever.  So it goes with the famous shower scene.

The saying is that “Sound is half the picture”.  Bernard Herrmann’s musical score is a masterpiece.  What horror films often lack in their soundscapes is a unique personality.  The composers often deliver harsh sounds and weighty orchestra without weaving their music into the story’s pattern.  The theme from ‘Psycho’, however, is its heartbeat.

‘Psycho’ is one of Hitch’s best and is certainly in the top-tier of the genre.  Our stay at the Bates Motel will remain in the cinematic consciousness forever.

Classic Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Tim Burton’s magnum opus, with all of his shocks, laughs, and, most importantly, heart.

Review: Tim Burton may be the most stylistic filmmaker of our time. His films are dark, twisted, strangely humorous, and, when done well, carry tremendous dramatic and emotional weight. Burton peaked twice in the early 90’s with two films that captured his style’s essence. The first was the live-action ‘Edward Scissorhands’ in 1990. The second was the stop-motion animated ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in 1993. And while they both contend for his best work, I think Nightmare just manages to edge out.

Ironically, though this may be his best film, Burton didn’t actually direct on it. That honor went to Henry Selick, a director who specializes in these kind stop-motion films. His other credits include ‘James and the Giant Peace’ and the recent ‘Coraline’. Burton did serve as a co-writer and co-producer, however, as well as providing the original idea; and this film certainly screams of Burton aesthetic and influence.

This is a holiday film and, as Burton described it, is something of the reverse of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Instead of someone trying to ‘steal’ Christmas, this movie tells the story of someone who finds it. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the leader of Halloween Town, and, of all the ghouls who live there, he is the most frightening. Recently though, he has begun to tire of Halloween; it no longer feels exciting or fresh to him, and he’s secretly depressed. That is until one day when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and discovers its titular celebration. He is overtaken by the wonder and joy of this new holiday and quickly embraces it as the perfect beautiful replacement for his old one. The only problem is that he gets carried away: he not only wants to celebrate it; he wants to run it. He wants to be in charge of it, as opposed to Santa Clause. Unfortunately for him, he finds Halloween-past and Christmas don’t mix easy.

It’s a story that has a lot of heart to it, and it’s told incredibly well. Jack’s tale is an introspective and meaningful account of someone’s quest to find happiness and meaning; and it also serves as a larger commentary on the Holiday culture in general. In the Western world, there’s a lot of build-up to holidays, but it’s common that the day itself and the time immediately afterword can be something of a let down. The theme of this movie seems to be that even though Holidays are important, it’s foolish to wait till the actual days or “Holiday Seasons” themselves to start celebrating the thoughts, ideas, and emotions they’re about, and it’s equally foolish to stop celebrating once the holiday is over. We need to always be mindful of what we’re thankful for, at some level always celebrating the things we have that give us joy. If we do that, then holidays will never be a let down. As my mother used to say, “It’s Christmas everyday in our hearts.”

As I said earlier, this film is entirely stop-motion animated, and it’s incredibly well done. All of the models and sets are very elaborate and have the trademark Burton/gothic feel to them. The choreography and movement that they pull off, especially during the musical numbers, is wonderfully graceful, no doubt thanks to Selick’s skilled direction. As a musical, it features very memorable work by Danny Elfman, with such impressive songs as “What’s This?” and “This is Halloween” buffering an outstanding score.

Burton’s made good and bad movies over his career, but when he hits something profound, he’s always dead on. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a beautifully crafted, excellently executed work and his true masterpiece. It’s both visually stunning and provocative, and it makes for wonderful story telling. There are few animated films, or holiday films for that matter, better than this. For Halloween or Christmas or anytime really, it’s more than worth a watch.

Classic Review: The Shining

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Shockingly effective, if not always horrifying.

Review:  Very strange things take place in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’; and it’s certainly extreme in its depiction of isolation-induced insanity, its suspenseful build-up, and its violent and graphic imagery.  But I’m just not sure if any of it was really frightening.

A young couple agrees to spend the winter caretaking a remote hotel hidden deep within the mountains.  For husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, this seems a perfect place to work on his new novel, with plenty of solitude and time on his hands.  As the winter settles in, however, he begins acting strangely towards his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and it seems he is cracking under cabin fever.  Not only that, but it seems the hotel itself, scarred by a violent and dark past, is calling out to him, sending him twisted visions and messages.  Danny, who possesses a unique telepathic gift called “Shining”, is also receiving strange, horrific visions.  It’s only a matter of time before both the elements and the supernatural push these people to their breaking point.

That’s the gist of the story, but while watching the movie it’s rather difficult to figure out what exactly is going on.  Because of the dual ideas of dementia and paranormal activity, the film has a way of confusing the audience, making them wonder what’s real and what’s imagined.  Are these people really seeing ghosts, or is it all in their heads?  Are evil spirits driving Jack, or has he just snapped under the isolation?  They are interesting questions that are, unfortunately, left unanswered.  Granted, such ambiguity is a trademark of director Stanley Kubrick, so I suppose I can’t be all that surprised.

This is, of course, one of only thirteen films made by Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime, and it certainly shows Kubrick’s strong direction.  He was man of unique ideas and opinions, and they always showed through in his works.  It’s possible he had some particularly weird notions about this film.  According to Kubrick himself, any story involving ghosts was inherently “optimistic” because it seemed to promise a life after death.  In that weird sense, ‘The Shining’ is a hopeful, arguably religious experience.  Do I really think this film is optimistic?  No, the idea of “optimism” in a film about evil spirits, simply because they imply eternal life, is a sad irony, and I doubt Kubrick was going for that.

There’s a lot in this movie that’s gruesome and mysterious.  It has a spine-chilling score and weird cinematography at times.  Nicholson gives a truly creepy performance as Jack grows ever more deranged.  It all should be scary, but I just didn’t think it was.  It’s not that I was bored or uninvolved; I just wasn’t terrified.  Something about the film didn’t tie all the elements together.  Granted, there were some very shocking moments, and the idea of the film certainly has great potential, but the overall story didn’t scare me the way it should have.  Things felt too distant.  The characters were strange and far away to me.  I guess I wasn’t as involved with them as I was with mysteries of the hotel they were in, and it’s hard to feel afraid for characters you don’t feel much for.

Even if it’s not particularly scary overall, this is still a solid, suspenseful, and very entertaining film.  A strong story (based on Stephen King’s original novel) with unique camera work and music, coupled with really great work on Nicholson’s end, make it a classic in my book.  One watch will promise at least a few shocking moments, and you might just find yourself surprisingly engaged in the story, even if you have no problems going to bed that night.