The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 

→Theater

Written by: Jay Basu, Fede Álvarez; Steven Knight

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

2018 has been a productive year for Claire Foy, star of Fede Álvarez’s gritty, Scandinavian-set crime thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In the span of nine months the British actress, perhaps most recognized as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed drama series The Crown, has not only appeared but starred in three films, two of which were major studio productions. In March we saw her come undone at the seams in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot, psychological thriller Unsane, and just last month embody resilience as Janet Armstrong, wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. With Spider’s Web she proves she can take a life as ruthlessly as anyone. (Or, you know, spare it too. But we know better, this Girl isn’t big on compassion.)

Seven years after David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s so-called Millennium Series, and it’s out with Rooney Mara and in with Claire Foy as Lisbeth (that’s a silent ‘h’) Salander, a steely-nerved spy/computer hacker and brutal dispatcher of men “who hurt women,” a vigilante who bears the scars of her own abusive history. It’s also out with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist and in with someone else, but I’ll get to that later . . . maybe.

Even more confusingly, unless you’ve done your homework and actually seen the Swedish films adapted from each of the original three books, this belated follow-up pursues a narrative that technically kicks off a second “trilogy,” one authored not by Larsson but by David Lagercrantz, who was granted rights for continuity after the original author passed away suddenly in 2004. Lagercrantz’s first contribution to the series details Salander’s bloody dealings with cyber-terrorists and corrupt government officials alike as she attempts to recover and destroy a doomsday program created by a man named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Along the way, Lisbeth must also deal with a past that comes back to bite her. Like a . . . like a spider.

First things first. Foy is enough to get you caught up in Spider’s Web. She takes a pedestrian thriller and punches it up with a physically bruising performance. Even if Foy is inheriting a lot of the character simply by sitting in a make-up chair — that jet-black hair and shoulder/back tat are definite and transformative trademarks — she plays emotionally detached quite well, her line delivery clipped in a manner that’s brittle and harsh, almost robotic. She perpetuates the tragic, enigmatic aura surrounding the character while delivering a number of harsh blows to her big-bodied opponents.

The story itself isn’t quite as distinguished. Spider’s Web is a pretty formal action flick that hinges upon a macguffin and its being kept out of the wrong hands. Who are the wrong hands exactly? Well, they call themselves The Spiders, which isn’t a very interesting name even if it is conceptually appropriate. Led by Claes Bang’s intimidating Holtser, they’re a shady organization to whom Lisbeth may or may not have a personal connection. Meanwhile, a child savant (Christopher Convery) proves just as crucial to the mission objective as a certain femme fatale (Silvia Hoeks, good but a plain Jane villain compared to her Luv in the Blade Runner sequel). The boy’s affinity for numbers and patterns just might help forward The Spiders’ nefarious agenda. Further complicating matters is corrupt deputy director of Swedish security Gabrielle Grane (Norwegian actress Synnøve Macody Lund).

Lisbeth may be a capable heroine, but she will also need more help than her computer hacking skills to combat her foes this time. Aiding in the quest is the return of the aforementioned and new-look Michael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), and hacking friend Plague (Cameron Britton). And for contrast’s sake, we even get an American in on the action in the form of Lakeith Stanfield‘s NSA security agent Edwin Needham. His motives may be guided more by plot than professional objectivity but Stanfield is a good actor and watching him round out the numbers for Team Salander is undeniably fun.

Álvarez, whose previous film (the mainstream-unfriendly Don’t Breathe) is distinguished for his directorial creativity, certainly isn’t as inspired here even with $43 million to throw around. But Spider’s Web‘s lack of chutzpah might not be entirely on his shoulders, considering the material he’s adapting isn’t quite as politically and intellectually charged as what came before. With the passing of the baton from Larsson to Lagercrantz came a (so I’m told, fairly radical) change of style, the latter doubling down on pulpier action. As has already been proven, Álvarez is adept at spiking the adrenaline, whether that’s an early scene where the girl with a black Ducati vroom-vrooms away in the nick of time across a sliver of ice or a big set piece involving a movable bridge helps her evade capture for just another minute.

Spider’s Web is a classic case of style over substance, Foy’s uniquely restrained performance defiant in the face of all that generic cybercrime stuff. In the end it proves to be a competent action flick but it lacks the depth, both in terms of world-building and what we come to learn about the character itself, to truly qualify as a so-called “new Dragon Tattoo story.”

“Ugh. Get a room you two. . .”

Recommendation: Your fairly standard action romp elevated by a strong central performance and an appropriately icy setting. Fans of the actress are encouraged to apply while fans of Larsson’s original books might want to take a rain check. Dragon Tattoo 2.0 this ain’t.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? The girl who hurts men who hurt women?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Avery

Release: Thursday, November 15, 2018

→Starbucks/my house

Written by: fate, apparently

Directed by: meteorological patterns, a.k.a. Winter Storm Avery

Avery is a little independent drama that showed up in northeastern New Jersey/Pennsylvania, seemingly out of nowhere. With the potential to drop anything from 4 to 7 inches of early-season crud as well as freezing rain/ice accumulations of up to another quarter-inch, it’s perhaps too early a reminder of what we all went through last season, when back-to-back storms that dumped at least a foot each hit the northeastern US and rendered millions without power and heating for up to a week. Avery may well be a quality storm, but man is it ill-timed. I’ve only now exhausted the last of my Halloween candy.

In a common refrain heard all over town today, this is indeed, bullshit.

At least this isn’t 2011, when “Snowtober” brought an unexpected early Christmas present — and by early I mean, a winter storm predating Halloween that year. I wasn’t living in the Garden State at the time, but I’ve heard the stories — of the juxtaposition of orange pumpkins against pillows of snow, of tree branches snapping all the way down the line on Cobblestone Lane, resulting from the unique, combined weight of snow and leaves that still had yet to fall. Sagas of multi-day power-outages and of dedicated parents driving their kids to neighborhoods that still had power to keep the spirit of trick-or-treating alive. I heard that a town called Peru, in Massachusetts, received a whopping 32 inches in that one storm.

Crazy, right? But what does any of this have to do with movies, you ask? I guess nothing, at least not directly. This snow does, however, mean I will not be risking my safety to drive to the theater to see Steve McQueen’s Widows tonight. That’s assuming Cinépolis stays open through the weather, too. So unfortunately I will have to delay on that review, and a couple others as well (like Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased, and Overlord — yikes!).

Despite all the inconvenience (woe as me, I can’t see the movies that I want to!) I would like to thank Avery for forcing me to stay put tonight and actually, for once, watch a movie at home. Maybe even in front of a fire. With hot chocolate. (Marshmallows?) So in anticipation of the bullshit that is to come I went to a Red Box kiosk last night and, would ya know, they have that crazy-looking, Nic Cage-starring Mandy in their collection! (And that got me to thinking, too; what was the last movie that I watched via Red Box and then also reviewed? It has been some time, I think since last September when I checked out British war drama Their Finest.) So with any luck I will have my reaction to another bat-shit Nic Cage flick in the coming days. I am pretty hungry to get to that, seeing as the reviews on it have largely been raves. There have been some savage rips of it as well, and that only further intrigues me.

But first, time to shovel the driveway. Damn it.


Have you seen Mandy? What about any of the other aforementioned movies? Any suggestions on what I should see first? 

The Finest Hours

'The Finest Hours' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Silver; Paul Tamasy; Eric Johnson

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Chris Pine just wants to be the captain of everything. And I guess that’s a good thing because every time his number is called he responds with some kind of grand gesture that usually involves multiple lives being saved under his extraordinary captainship. The Finest Hours isn’t exactly Star Trek but if he continues to shine in these capacities, I say let him have a crack at Captain Planet. (Certain captains are, of course, off-limits. Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Phillips and Captain Morgan — they don’t need overhauls. They’re doing just fine without Pine.)

The Finest Hours isn’t so much interested in captainship per se (if you want to get technical, Pine’s role hews closer to coxswain than captain this time), but it is still a movie that champions leadership and courageousness. The only catch is Craig Gillespie directs a very Disney-friendly version of the events that comprised one of the most dangerous rescue missions in US Coast Guard history.

It’s February 18, 1952 and a brutal winter storm is tightening its grip on New England. After receiving a distress call from an oil freighter just off the coast, its hull cracked in half from battling twenty-plus-foot waves, Chatham Station Commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana, with an awkward southern accent) assigns the young and amiable Bernie Webber to the rescue mission, one that has all but been dismissed as more of a suicide mission by other, more experienced seamen.

Ignoring the cautionary tales of his elders, Webber puts together a four-person team with Richard P. Livesey (Ben Foster), third class engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), a mailboy, joining him in his CG 36500. The most significant and perhaps most deadly obstacle will require Webber to maneuver the 30-foot life boat through violent surf crashing over shallow sand bars just off shore; passing through to open water has never been successfully executed in storm conditions. From there it’ll be a battle against high winds and impending darkness.

Bernie, of course, is soon to be marrying his beloved Miriam (Holliday Grainger) in April. Gillespie reminds us several times that if there’s any reason for Bernie to return home safely, it’s for her. Miriam isn’t a typical 1950s girl, she’s headstrong and demands to be kept informed during every step of the procedure. Miriam has little patience for dealing with gender roles and bureaucracy, so much so that she at one point walks right into Cluff’s office and demands he abandon the mission. Grainger toes the line between confidence and impertinence and while she is refreshing to watch, the question can’t help but rear itself: was the real Miriam Webber this pushy? And where does the line between fact and dramatic license blur? Even still, her defiance of rules and Bernie’s adherence to them has a nice symmetry.

The picture’s not complete until we’ve addressed Casey Affleck‘s meek and mild Ray Sybert, a brilliant engineer stuck in the bowels of the stranded SS Pendleton. The scrawny New Englander finds himself up against one of the greatest technical and physical challenges of his life as he sets about preventing the engine room from taking on more water. There are concerns like the pump flooding, losing power, losing steering ability, and then finally, losing crew.

Rather than drowning in the waves of mounting stress — they have only hours before they sink — Sybert sets about trying to solve the problem rationally. In some ways, The Finest Hours is actually more interested in these embattled blue collared fellas working as a well-oiled machine under Sybert’s semi-reluctant guidance. Despite these being the most politely-spoken New England-based seafarers we’ve ever met (thanks Disney), we understand fairly well Sybert is far from a chosen leader. Other voices are louder, stronger, more adamant. Affleck imbues his character with such quiet strength, a composure that no one else manages to summon.

The film is considerably less compelling when things aren’t falling apart. The Finest Hours won’t be remembered for its romance nor the acting in general. The trio of Pine, Affleck and Grainger have clearly put in the hours but the others, including Bana, leave hardly an impression at all. Somehow that’s okay if you focus on what good the film does. Even though it never breaches those depths of remarkable filmmaking, this optimistic and entirely earnest effort to recount a most unlikely rescue mission is still well worth watching.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 5.12.21 PM

Recommendation: The Finest Hours, hampered by a slow opening half but bolstered by heart-pounding action sequences in the middle and towards the end, is a mostly satisfying mixture of action and human drama. Based on the true story, the film feels most comfortable detailing the toils of the stranded freight crew rather than showing how the Coast Guard responded. A little strange then, that the film decides to credit the latter and ignore the former in a pre-credits photo montage. This film isn’t just about the Coast Guard’s decision to make a daring mission. It’s about enduring grave danger as well.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m not afraid of the water, Bernie. It just scares me at night, that’s all. You can’t see what’s underneath.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Revenant

The Revenant movie poster

Release: Friday, January 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Mark L. Smith

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

There are some things in The Revenant that you can’t un-see. Like the bloody confrontation between the Arikara tribe and Captain Andrew Henry’s men in the very first scene. Or a human body torn apart by monstrous bear claws. These moments transcend shock value, they go beyond the call of dramatic duty, depicted so authentically so as to become genuinely upsetting.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-friendly Birdman doesn’t get any less haggard as it plods onward, but the bloodletting slows just enough for us to catch our breath and get our feet back under us. Through a protracted adventure across harsh winterscapes, one that favors physical over verbal communication, Iñárritu’s epic vision confirms those who tough out the opening half hour will be well-equipped to handle everything Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass must go through in the ensuing two-plus hours.

Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s right-hand man, drops us into the early 1800s. It’s man against nature; us against the sprawling, unforgiving territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Even from a distance and in comfy theater chairs, feeling cold and exposed is an inevitability. Lubezki’s fiercely uncompromising artistry — a refusal to use anything but the natural light a pale sun and dusty, white-washed landscapes provide — ensures that of all the things we are going to feel, safe won’t be one of them. This is his movie as much as it is the director’s (and Leo’s). Iñárritu directs a script he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, one that tells of a remarkable true story of survival and human courage.

The premise is simple, one of those one-line blurbs that could present a problem to those who weren’t enthralled by the chase in Mad Max: Fury Road; this is an all-out crawl against the odds as Glass hunts down the man responsible for killing his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) after Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his men. The Revenant isn’t interested in making things complicated because society at this stage isn’t exactly what you’d call civilized. People get by on raw bison liver and don the skin of bears they’ve just killed for protection from the elements.

Yet, there is a reward for enduring, not just in terms of its occasionally stomach-turning imagery. The bulk of the narrative pivots around Glass’ interactions with the great outdoors, the pace often slowing to a literal crawl but not once does it become lethargic. Of course, come the end we still hope the wait has been worthwhile — will we get that ultimate showdown between good and evil? How will justice be meted out? As much as we want to shield our eyes from the next confrontation, the trifecta of superior directing, acting and photography simply doesn’t allow it.

In a film like this, the protagonist is only as good as the villain he must face. While nature is in itself a force to be reckoned with, The Revenant has been gifted Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable fur trapper whose ideological differences with Glass’ headstrong explorer type drive the narrative forward. The tension between them can at times be unbearable, the look in Hardy’s eyes frightening and proof that Charles Bronson was merely practice for the big leagues. But the hostility of Native American tribes might well take the cake in terms of driving home the tragedy of what America once was.

So, what of Leo then? And why have I put off discussing him for so long? It should come as no surprise that some of the film’s best-kept secrets — many thankfully avoid ruination by not featuring in the overplayed trailers — hinge on what Leo does and does not do with his body. Imagining a role where an actor must do more to convey the physicality of early American life is nigh on impossible. As he inches his way from one life-threatening obstacle to the next, his Quaalude-induced spasms in The Wolf of Wall Street become a far crawl from true greatness. But Leo’s not just another decomposing body in a picture filled with death and decay.

Glass is a fiercely protective father. His paternal instinct is his trump card, a tenderness and passion for rearing his child the right way offering balance to a character with great potential to come across all too heroic and mythological. Whatever distances we try to put between ourselves and the brutes we face here, there’s no denying little has changed about the fact parents are willing to do anything to protect  their children from the indiscriminate terribleness of the world. DiCaprio is nothing less than incredible here. (I won’t say Oscar-winning lest I jinx the whole damn thing.)

It’s well-known The Revenant was a very difficult movie to make, though not for financial reasons. The cast and crew suffered brutal conditions. The shoot was described as “hellish.” If the actors look like they’re very uncomfortable in their respective scenes, that’s probably because they are. Many of the original staff didn’t see the project to its end. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina, the film pulses with a vitality that’s impossible to stage. Natural beauty brilliantly disguises the film’s black heart. Every time I had to shield my eyes — I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but yeah, I did — I then reminded myself what a thing of beauty it was that I was witnessing.

things start getting hectic in 'The Revenant'

Recommendation: This film is not for the squeamish. Raw power, visceral imagery and blunt honesty combine with legendary performances to create a film that will be impossible to forget, much less imitate. I haven’t seen the Mexican auteur’s full filmography yet, but I have this nagging feeling he might have just hit a career high with this stripped-back and naturalistic production. A must-see for fans of DiCaprio. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 156 mins.

Quoted: “You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass? . . . ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon’ bring your boy back.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

new tbt logo

If you’ve been following along with this segment, you might be aware I’ve spent the last several installments picking titles at random — and in a slight panic, with several of them being decided upon (or even watched) at the very last possible second — so it’ll be nice to reintroduce some semblance of consistency here again, in the form of Holiday Cheer movies. Granted, the next several posts should be fairly predictable. Let’s just say that I’ve graduated from scrambling for random film titles to scrambling to find an appropriate monthly theme. 😉 With all that said, I know this entry today revolves around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas but you know what, I’m prepared to take the flak. You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. 

Today’s food for thought: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Planes Trains and Automobiles movie poster

Being victimized by public transportation services since: November 25, 1987

[Netflix]

I can’t believe I’ve only now sat down to watch for the first time Steve Martin interact with the comedic genius that was (is?) John Candy. Now the real question: is that something I should have admitted?

I suppose it doesn’t matter as I can say with Del Griffith-like confidence that John Hughes’ classic fits snugly into the brand of comedy I cherish more than any other. That’s not to say, however, that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the kind of story you can’t find reproduced elsewhere. It’s a tried-and-true road trip adventure featuring two distinct personalities who, despite all odds, wind up growing on one another having endured several days’ worth of mishaps that border on the (amusingly) catastrophic. Replete with sight gags and punchlines that, by comparison to today’s standards, feel sophisticated and novel, Planes is of course capped off with a happy and wholly satisfying ending that epitomizes the feel-good spirit of the holiday season.

The film explores the dichotomy of the psychological effects the hectic holiday season has on people. Ignoring the isolated incidents that seem to occur on Black Friday, the day where everyone seems to take pleasure in being their worst selves, the days and weeks leading up to Christmas have potential to be some of the most stressful all year. It’s that reality that Hughes taps into using Martin, who plays an uptight and rather uncharitable marketing executive named Neal Page, and his polar opposite in Candy’s happy-go-lucky, perpetually cheerful shower curtain ring salesman Del. While it might be more comforting — beneficial, even — to assign personalities and dispositions to a spectrum ranging from very negative to positive, there’s no denying the stereotype is alive and well during the holiday shopping season.

In Planes, Neal faces one setback after another in his attempts to get back to his family for Thanksgiving dinner, starting with missing a taxi to the airport that almost causes him to miss his flight home to Chicago from New York. This is where he first bumps into Del, who would later laugh about how amusing it was that Neal tried to steal *his* cab. Wouldn’t you know it, the two end up sitting next to each other on the flight, one that ultimately ends up having to land in Wichita due to a terrible snowstorm in Chicago. Del is quick to remind Neal once on the ground that given the circumstances it will be next-to-impossible to book a hotel room anywhere, and the two end up taking a room at some seedy motel miles away, which sets up the iconic “I don’t judge you, so why do you judge me” speech.

Things only get worse from there, as Neal is faced with the prospect of continuing to travel with Del as he seems to be the only way he’s going to get out of this crummy town. They board a train that later breaks down and end up having to cram into a city bus that threatens to fall apart at any moment. Much to our amusement the quality of transit vehicles only adds to Neal’s mounting frustrations. It all culminates in a literally explosive car ride that sees the pair brought to their knees at yet another cheap-o hotel, where the question finally must be asked: “is it me, or is it just everyone else around me that’s crazy?”

Existential rumination aside, Hughes’ judgment of character development couldn’t have been more satisfying. There are so many instances throughout the course of this escapade where we think there’s no way Del can screw things up any more than they already are; there’s no way Neal can possibly be any more unpleasant than he was trying to rent a car. And yet developments belie expectations, but only to a point. There’s a wonderful scene at another rundown motel in which the pair are confronted by their own consciences. It’s not like the humbling process isn’t unexpected. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Hughes’ filmography, it should come as no surprise the slide into relative despair can’t be sustained; this is a road trip comedy after all. Yet it’s the aesthetics of the scene that really impact. There’s something about the faux-wooden interior of this particular room that resonates warmly.

In the end, Planes‘ episodic nature epitomizes the oft-exaggerated emotions and experiences of the holiday season. Whether it’s finding the ideal gift for a loved one, putting together a master shopping list for the big dinner or simply attempting to shoulder the responsibilities of throwing a seasonal party, this time of year presents stress in many forms. Hughes is keenly aware of that reality, and he has a field day with it thanks to the interplay between these comedic greats.

Planes Trains Automobiles Martin Candy Fire

Recommendation: Planes, Trains and Automobiles satisfies on many levels with its diverse and highly effective collection of comedic situations and running jokes. It’s another one of those entries that makes one sorely nostalgic for the days of quality comedy. Thanks to great turns from Steve Martin and John Candy this is a film that fans can re-watch over and again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

TBTrivia: Perspectives are a funny thing. John Candy and Steve Martin have both named this film as their favorite films of their own. Ask other crew members who worked on the film and they’ll describe the shoot as “hellish,” as they were obligated to drive back and forth between locations on the East Coast and the Midwest since each time they arrived at one place the snow they were hoping to find melted too quickly. According to some crew members, John Hughes was in a terrible mood for much of the process as he was enduring difficult times in his personal life.

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Photo credits: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com; http://www.haphazard-stuff.blogspot.com 

TBT: Out Cold (2001)

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As the leaves continue their mass exodus from their branches, I’m reminded that my favorite season is just around the corner. Why winter? A couple of reasons. First of all winter seasonals are some of my favorite beers. Second, winter usually means snow, and snow usually means it’s time to go and hit the slopes. And of course you can’t have ski trips without the aprês ski — very few things go better together than a long day of shredding and then hitting the bar at the bottom of the mountain at the end. Then there’s the other clichés of course: hot chocolate, the turn of the New Year and all that that entails. The list goes on. To mark the occasion I figured we’d take a look at a snowboarding film I remember fondly from high school. I distinctly remember wearing this disc out, well beyond playability I watched it so many times. 

Today’s food for thought: Out Cold.

Getting awkwardly stuck in jacuzzis since: November 21, 2001

[DVD]

For those of a certain comedic persuasion, it doesn’t get much more nostalgic than when you think back on the first time you watched the Malloy brothers’ Out Cold, a low-budget, low-risk, bacchanalia-obsessed film about a group of snowboarders trying to save their rinky-dink ski town from being converted into a commercialized tourist trap.

While the film has all the hallmarks of a direct-to-DVD feature — which I’m fairly certain it was — it goes down like a swill of your favorite Rocky Mountain brew, its outrageous (and numerous) Zach Galifianakis-centered hijinks and small-town frolics producing that oh-so-warm-and-fuzzy feeling buddy comedies are so adept at. Trust me, if you haven’t ever seen the movie it’s not anything you can’t figure out using the above movie poster as a reference. Out Cold is about as silly as they come, but unlike other films of its ilk it has a surprising amount of staying power.

The uniformly memorable cast of characters goes a long way in cementing the film as one of the best in a bunch of very mediocre and unambitious slacker films; Jason London’s Rick Rambis heads up a crew of twentysomethings who have probably spent a little too much time at elevation, for all intents and purposes good kids who have allowed the combination of fresh mountain air and bong smoke dictate every major life decision they need to make — whether it’s properly honoring Bull Mountain resort founder Papa Muntz or figuring out how to tell your crush they’re the only one for you.

Aiding Rick in his inebriated misadventures are Anthony (Flex Alexander), Jenny (A.J. Cook), the endearingly brain-damaged Pig Pen (Derek Hamilton) and his only slightly-more-coherent brother Luke (Galifianakis in his break-out role), and the bar tender Lance (David Denman), who has severe self-esteem issues . . .

Of course there are a few stand-out supporting roles that add some flavor to this Raunch Sandwich: David Koechner plays town weirdo Stumpy, a guy more comfortable in shorts than in proper winter gear and with a penchant for going on rants (be careful what you wish for, Richard); Lee Majors shows up in a small but pivotal role as John Majors, the businessman who poses a threat to Bull Mountain’s stoner status quo; Swedish model Victoria Silvstedt blends nicely into the Alaskan scenery as Inga . . . and of course by ‘nicely’ I mean she sticks out so much it becomes comical. At nearly 6 feet tall and long, flowing blonde hair she is quite the woman. Too bad she’s only a weekend visitor, schtepdaughter to Mr. Majors. The resort, a family business, is now being run by Muntz’ bumbling son Teddy (Willie Garson). And then of course there’s Thomas Lennon being, well, Thomas Lennon.

It may seem odd to give this many people a nod in a movie this small, particularly when considering only a few of them — Galifianakis, Koechner, Hamilton and Denman — leave a lasting impression. Yet Out Cold lives and dies on the camaraderie of its cast; this is very much a festive occasion with more emphasis on penis jokes, practical jokes and even practical penis jokes than story. Sadly Out Cold can’t quite resist the urge to toss in a thoroughly sugar-coated romantic subplot involving Rick and his former gal, who just so happens to stop in at their watering hole one afternoon. Oh, and she also happens to be Majors’ daughter, Anna (Canadian beauty Caroline Dhavernas). What are the odds?

London and Dhavernas share about as much chemistry as Galifianakis shares with his polar bear friend in the early stages of the film. Unable to move on since being stood-up at the end of a week-long fling in Cancun, Rick finds himself pining after his long-lost love to the tune of some seriously overdone clichés that offer up the film’s lamest scenes. Apparently the romance is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Casablanca (though I’ll leave it up to you to determine how successfully that comes across for anyone who hasn’t seen this film). Barring this unnecessary frill, Out Cold does well by its decision to stick to the open slopes instead of heading into the trees where less-traveled narrative paths run the risk of potentially exhilarating or completely losing its audience.

Out Cold is as predictable as they come but the party atmosphere, conjured by a great cast, makes for a highly enjoyable and unexpectedly hilarious package.

Recommendation: One to watch in your early 20s, there’s no doubt about it. Make that late teens. There’s no nudity in this one folks, which is a little odd considering, once again, the party atmosphere. (For whatever reason these guys were aiming at the PG-13 rating. . . presumably to net a larger audience, but . .  eh.) Definitely a great one for early, stand-out comedic touches from the likes of Galifianakis, Koechner and Denman. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 89 mins.

TBTrivia: Very loosely based on Casablanca. It can be seen when Rick has the flashback of him and Anna, when Rick says, “Of all of the bars in all the ski towns in Alaska why did she have to pick this one?” (much like “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . .”), when Anna has Luke (Sam in Casablanca) play their song and Rick walks in, and finally in one of the closing scenes when Anna gets on the plane and Rick says, “We’ll always have Pedro O’Horny’s,” which is a direct reference to Humphrey Bogart’s famous, “We’ll always have Paris.”

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Photo credits: http://www.martiperarnau.com; http://www.alchetron.com 

TBT: Fargo (1996)

Get the heck out of here, August. Take all your bad vibes with you. Not that this month has been a particularly bad one for watching movies, new and old alike. But, sheesh, would you just please get out of the way so the fall season can begin? And I’m looking forward to more than just good movies as well as lower temperatures — it’s soon the beginning of football and later, the basketball season. And then, the inevitable cold grip of winter. (Although I will say I don’t get to look forward to anything like my friend in the north Ruth does on that front.) Watching this movie today gave me a taste of what she may be dealing with within the next few months, so my thoughts go out to her. I’m thankful I don’t have to deal with the conditions found in

Today’s food for thought: Fargo.

Chilling out since: Friday, April 5, 1996

[DVD]

So Fargo is an odd one. Not purely because of the content — it is quirky and at times pretty uncomfortable, no doubt about it — but owing more to the fact I could barely react after finally undertaking the journey. High production values, coupled with the Coens’ affinity for quirking out and all that are qualities that I admire about it, but if I have a duty to actually love what I’ve watched, then I’ll have to force the feeling.

And yet, I’m not comfortable saying I dislike it either. I’m frustratingly indifferent to the whole thing. Beyond the peculiar accents that implied lots of vocal coaching for the principals, the wood chipper murder scene and Frances McDormand’s unflappable Marge Gunderson, there’s not much about Fargo that will stay with me. To further muddy the waters, I can’t disagree with its success at the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, being nominated for an impressive seven awards and winning two — one for its original screenplay and another honoring McDormand’s lead performance. In fact I see the film just as deserving of a gold statue for its subtle yet effective production design. That’s the trifecta of achievements that has earned Fargo its reputation over the last two decades, at least as I see it.

Do I blame the reputation itself for my own lackluster experience? Maybe a little, but then that kind of argument feels more like an excuse, an object for me to hide behind because     . . . well, you know, popular opinion can be a hell of a tide to swim against. Fargo is so very Coen-esque, but give me The Big Lebowski any day over the farcical trials of a few northern Minnesotans. Of the two dark comedies, bowling alleys made for a more compelling visual motif than a snow-covered highway. But I get the point. Fargo was never intended to uplift and inspire the kind of ‘happy’ laughter The Dude and his oddball friends do. Fargo is downbeat, its amusement derived from the ineptitude of many of its characters. That and the sheer hopelessness of the winter season.

When Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a desperate car dealer, hires a pair of thugs to kidnap his wife in an elaborate scheme to extort nearly one million dollars from her wealthy father (his boss), Wade (Harve Presnell), things go pear-shaped for the criminals, leaving Jerry in an awkward position between them and Wade, who is unaware the actual ransom is only $80,000. Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (a particularly nasty Peter Stormare) are transporting the wife when they’re unexpectedly pulled over by a state trooper just outside of Brainerd. The encounter turns ugly quickly when an enraged Gaear shoots and kills the officer and hunts down the unfortunate kids who happen upon the scene moments later.

“Looks like a triple homicide,” deduces a curious Marge the next day. And, yah, I get what is going on here, too. I’m supposed to be mesmerized by her very un-mesmerizing attire, a uniform of brown and gray, vivid when set against a never ending sea of white. No doubt about it, her presence is visually significant, a kind of modest icon who seizes every opportunity to provide the film (or more critically, viewers) a modicum of reason. Her intuition at the scene of this odd crime scene suggests that, aside from her doting husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), the coalition for reason in Fargo is considerably weak.

I have a high threshold when it comes to films that are deliberately weird. I get along great with Lebowski, find something thrillingly disturbing in A Serious Man, and even accept characters who are meant to be enjoyed less than they are pitied, people like Llewyn Davis. The Coens managed to at least pique my curiosity even if their collaborative effort failed to fully engage me. Emotionally I was kept at an arm’s reach as I witnessed a crime story devolving into a mere battle of wits between Officer Gunderson and that slimy little Jerry fella. Performances from Buscemi and Stormare helped boost my enthusiasm — more so the former than the latter — and offset this sense of duty I felt for having to put up with Macy’s sniveling little scumbag of a car dealer. (Credit where credit is due, though: my frustration with his character is once again derived from his high caliber acting; if he weren’t good he’d have elicited no reaction from me at all.)

For a film that has been as lauded as it has over the years I exited feeling more or less unchanged, as if I were watching the movie with glazed-over eyes. I kind of feel guilty. While I will forever maintain that Fargo was robbed of a production design award — saying I exited feeling unchanged isn’t quite accurate actually, I just felt cold and lonely at the end — I feel similarly robbed, with expectations perhaps unreasonably elevated to insurmountable heights given its reputation as “an American classic.” What did I miss on my first visit? I suspect I’m going to have to go back and watch again because now the guilt is starting to feel a little more like paranoia.

Recommendation: Fargo is the Coen brothers at perhaps their most idiosyncratic. This is a production filled to the brim with strong performances and the filmmakers’ penchant for finding comedy in the funereal. Aside from McDormand’s policewoman I feel like there’s not much to recommend about this film, despite everything I have ever heard about it. But maybe I just need to sit down and give it another chance. Not exactly a prospect I’m looking forward to though. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: The snow plow that drives past the motel at the end of the film was not part of the script. Signs in the area warned motorists not to drive through due to filming, but a state employee ignored them.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Homesman

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Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones; Kieran Fitzgerald; Wesley A. Oliver

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones is once again a man whose greatness knows no bounds as he stars in, directs as well as helps to write and produce this quietly fierce tale about Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank).

Who’s that, you ask?

Isn’t that the million dollar question. An unusually strong, independent woman and fearless pioneer who takes it upon herself to transport three psychologically disturbed/physically abused women from various regions of the wild west, back to a proper care facility located somewhere out upon those sprawling Iowan plains — Cuddy is a societal enigma, an individual hardened by the hostility of 1850s midwestern American life and slowly withering in isolation. She is unwed. She’s introduced as someone somewhat desperate to shake the shackles of apparent spinsterhood. No man wants to be with her for her plain looks and, quote, bossiness, repel almost immediately.

Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs is a man with few scruples, and even fewer rules for trying to get along in this rough and tough world these characters perfectly inhabit in 2014. The contemporary release date can be confusing, for surely this is one gorgeously realized (and thus convincing) setting, affecting an instant nostalgia among the John Wayne faithful — or period film/western fans in general. That there’s someone of Jones’ stature (and dare I give it away now. . .okay I will. . .Meryl Streep’s) in supporting roles certainly helps. Streep may be less associated with the genre, but her ability to disappear inside her roles unsurprisingly serves her well here.

The Homesman is quite the traditional western. Except for the fact that it’s not. We have Indians who fiercely claim their territory, a harsh winter that lays spoil to many a homestead — William Fichtner’s Vester Belknap laments the disappearance of his corn crops and subsequently must deal with his rapidly ailing wife (who indeed becomes one of the three needing to be relocated) — and a script that heeds the reserved mannerisms, quaint colloquialisms and customs of the day.

But this is also a film set in the heart of America (as opposed to the literal ‘western’ territory) — Nebraska and Iowa primarily — and whose overtones, a mixture of darkly comic and comically bleak, tend to betray those of standard western romps. Slapstick violence doesn’t exist, though the heart-wrenching kind does. Death is a friend to many on these plains, while there is nothing quite like seeing TLJ in his pre-industrial jockstraps being smoked out of “his” home by a bunch of spurned settlers. He’ll soon be lynched on horseback (sounds confusing, I know) for jumping on another man’s land, so that smile won’t last. A valid argument could be made for The Homesman‘s tonal bipolarity. One minute it’s deadly serious; the next it moves the viewer to fits of giggles.

With Jones in the director’s chair, however, all is most certainly not lost. Hardly a thing is. Save for logic towards the end. The Homesman ends on a very, very strange note. And while I will maintain my promise to not ruin things here, I must comment on Jones’ decision-making at this juncture. (Like, what the hell man?!) Or, translated professionally: there are some baffling choices made at the 11th hour. Are they enough to abandon The Homesman in unfamiliar territory? Not quite. Are they apparent enough to cause a directorially-illiterate viewer (a.k.a. me) to notice? You bet your buffalo hide.

This latest effort from director TLJ finds the craftsman working respectfully — dutifully reminding us that while modern living is no breeze, we might just have it a little easier than those growing up on the frontier.

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3-5Recommendation: Packed with reliably sturdy performances and fascinating characters — I think the trio of sick women are going to be criminally overlooked here — The Homesman finds strength in being not quite like the others. Fans of the cast and steadily absorbing narratives need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “Are you an angel?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: The Shining (1980)

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The first time I had heard this film title, I thought it was referring to something else entirely. And when I finally sat down to watch (whenever that first time was, I wish I could remember. . .) I came into the understanding rather quickly that yes indeed, this would be no comedy. No one would be getting pants-ed. No half-naked actors . .  . well. Not in the way you want them to be naked. *Shudder* That lady in the bathtub — thanks, but no thanks. What’s even more bizarre, in hindsight, is at the time I didn’t know at all what it was that I was getting myself into. Had no idea this film was a classic. Had no idea Jack Nicholson could be like. . .this. 

Today’s food for thought: The Shining

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Causing hotel keepers to go insane since: forever. . .and ever. . .and ever. . .

[DVD]

At the time I also had no idea there were deviations from Stephen King’s novel. Or that Mr. King himself wasn’t much of a fan of the finished film product. Of course I’ve paid no heed to the spirits that haunt this film reel for it is indeed one of the greatest of all time. That kind of high praise has for so long surrounded its director (I don’t know, some guy named Stanley Kubrick) that, to the uninitiated, it’s almost as if the center might collapse at any moment, like a doughnut jam-packed with a bit too much jelly.

At this point The Shining has almost become a mythological creature, existing now as a shrine to the frightening heights of Jack Nicholson’s madness and a podium before which Shelley Duvall may stand and proudly shout her name. I haven’t seen her in anything since nor have been so moved to do so, but in the same way I am not allowed to forget troubled writer Jack Torrance, I can’t scrub the pallid complexion of Wendy, his wife, from my brain. The horror has endured because these characters have, and for 34 years they have been thriving on the off-chance poor saps may make the mistake of revisiting The Overlook Hotel again on Netflix. Or, better yet: for newbies to take their first look around inside.

Me? I have spent the last several years successfully avoiding the interior of that place. It’s more like I’ve been running around in the maze out back, looking for some kind of way out of here. Yet, the imagery (and of course the quotes — “Here’s Johnny!!!”) has remained vivid and complex, mysterious but significant.

In need of extra income, Jack Torrance takes his family and secludes them in the beautiful but remote Overlook Hotel as the staff have been looking for a caretaker for the off-season, wintry months from December through May. This, Jack figured, would be as good a place as any to get focused on his writing. But the distractions soon become numerous and of an ominous variety, the source of which seems to be the Indian burial ground upon which the expansive hotel had been built. Over the coming days and weeks, Jack’s behavior increases in bizarreness and hostility, shrinking what was left of Wendy’s sense of self-preservation into a circle only she could fit into. And the Torrances’ only child is some kind of disturbed visionary who doesn’t ‘approve’ of the new surrounds. If that doesn’t promote cabin fever, what does?

Danny can’t exactly see dead people but he can sense the malevolent presences within this lonely building. His psychic abilities are referred to as ‘shining,’ and are also shared with certain members on staff, including the hotel chef — a man named Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). Danny’s been able to foresee terrible things occurring here, but is he able to prevent them? Unfortunately that’s all out of his little, future blood-stained hands. Dad’s too blinded by his own frustrations as a failing writer (I can relate, dude) and thus is spending more time on his own, away from his wife whom he keeps having violent outbursts towards.

Stanley Kubrick on this occasion built suspense like nobody’s business, while simultaneously implementing some of the most recognizable set pieces you’re likely to find in horror. What we have here may not be everything that is presented in the novel. In fact a lot has changed, apparently. But what is used is also hellishly effective: the torrent of blood escaping the elevators; retro, 70s-style carpeting; hedge mazes, that also double as escape routes, by the way; the fire ax going through a bedroom door.

If blood and guts don’t creep you out, the stifling atmosphere had a better chance of chilling your internal body temperature by a few degrees. The Shining simultaneously dwelled upon and benefitted from the dress of decay. Everything from the abandoned space, to the season in which these disturbing transformations occur helped impress upon us that here is a family with no way of ridding themselves of harm. Of grisly, twisted and unpredictable violence.

If Jack were successful in completing just whatever it was he had committed to writing — a book, a collection of poems, perhaps? — I can only provide speculation as to how his real-life ending might have fit. A little bit bloodier? No doubt. More predictable? Eh, maybe. If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, the more sane of us have been left wondering what this man would be like if left without that typewriter of his. At least here, he was temporarily distracted.

The beauty in Kubrick’s adaptation, accurate or not, has been the ability for audiences to imagine themselves in such a situation and what they would do. The supernatural forces driving former residents mad was a concept abstract and terrifying enough for two different auteurs — one a writer and another a filmmaker — to base stories off of and yet come away with two different experiences, both arguably equally successful. That’s damn impressive and a true testament to the power of well-conceived horror.

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5-0Recommendation: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is — and this is a boring way to put it, I know — a true classic. It not only stands the test of time, it almost becomes scarier each time you revisit it. Something else just keeps popping up, some detail you never noticed before. On that basis alone, if you haven’t still seen this movie I urge you to do so pronto. If you are a horror buff, I think we’re done here. If you’re squeamish, you should watch this anyway. Just so you’re not so squeamish in other, lesser horrors. Thicken that skin!

Rated: R

Running Time: 144 mins.

TBTrivia: A tale of horrifying edits. Apparently the original script was edited so many times it began to irritate Jack. It got to a point where he’d only read the new pages that were added to the script daily. He later cited the role as one of the toughest he’s ever undertaken.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com