With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presented audiences in 1968 with an impressive and expansive interstellar future. Following a haunting origin story, wherein a black monolith appears to a group of prehistoric apes, Kubrick transports viewers to an exotic outer-space world where scientists have unearthed the monolith on the Earth’s moon. After another leap in time, we are brought aboard the spaceship Discovery during its “half-a-billion mile journey” to Jupiter.
Author: Christian Gay
Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a masterful and horrific exploration of the surreal world of dreams, which also introduced the world to an iconic slasher villain: Freddy Krueger. Krueger and the film’s premise terrified me as a child growing up in the 80s, long before I ever sat through a screening. Now, having seen the film many times, it’s evident that its wealth of bloodcurdling imagery and symbolism could keep a psychoanalyst or film critic busy for days. In this most recent viewing, I found myself preoccupied with subjectivity in the film— which scenes are meant to occur in the dream world and which are real? Whose dreams are whose? Are we to believe the film’s ingénue?, Nancy, in her final confrontation with Freddy, when she realizes that “this was all a dream”—presumably her dream?
Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s recent horror outing The Void might be more aptly titled The Cypher – the film is filled to the brim with winks and nods to horror and sci-fi masterworks, rewarding diehard genre fans while managing to deliver some wholly original horror imagery.
The film’s ultraviolent prologue, wherein the occupants of a country home are slaughtered in the still of the night, hearkens to The Amityville Horror (1979) before the film shifts to introduce us to rural police officer Daniel Carter, dozing in his patrol car. Carter soon discovers the bloodied man who has fled the prologue massacre and drives him to a local hospital that has been all but gutted by a recent fire. The hospital’s skeleton crew of four admit the man and begin treating his injuries. At this point, the film suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween II (1981): a small, ill-equipped rural hospital is besieged by a killer who picks off victims one-by-one. While the film more-or-less follows this trope, other horror references are quickly added to the mix.
There’s nothing quite like the experience of watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, his prequel and epilogue to the ABC television series, allowed Lynch to connect plot points (albeit loosely, and with tangled string), answer some lingering questions, and make explicit some of the more taboo themes of the network television series. Filmgoers unfamiliar with Lynch or the series will immediately get a sense of his surreal style as the film opens – the screen is blurry and blue, eventually revealed to be a static-filled television screen, which is then destroyed with a baseball bat to the sound of a woman’s terrified screams. Could this be Lynch’s signal to the audience that he is through with television, and here, returning to film, ready to smash all preconceived notions of his work?
One of the earliest and best-written “gold-digger” or “grifter” narratives, Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story is a fast-paced, entertaining farce with witty dialogue that still captivates audiences, decades after its release. The premise of the film is a provocative one: after several years of marriage, Gerri Jeffers (played by Claudette Colbert) leaves her husband in pursuit of more profitable relationships with men. She openly and unapologetically acknowledges the role that sex and beauty play in social status and access to money, and as such, the plot dances around the notion of prostitution, or at least, of “sex as commerce,” while strictly adhering to the neutered demands of the Production Code. Thus, a film that at first blush appears to be a formulaic screwball comedy is actually quite radical, relying upon (and critiquing) certain norms and notions of gender and economic class in 1940s America.
Viewed by today’s audiences, Mack Sennett’s 1914 film Tillie’s Punctured Romance might appear to be a broad slapstick comedy that relies on fat jokes, drunken caricatures and butt-kicking for laughs –unremarkable, save for the fact that it was the first feature-length film comedy ever released. Contemporary viewers might also recognize silent film megastar Charlie Chaplin (here billed as “Charles”) and Sennett’s silent comedy mainstays, “the Keystone Kops.” But why revive and screen the film, especially as part of a series entitled “The Women Who Built Hollywood?”
George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story is a fascinating film, rewarding the viewer with each repeat viewing. The film is perhaps the quintessential remarriage comedy, the finest of a popular cycle of films produced in Hollywood during the 1930s and ‘40s that share certain formulaic narrative similarities. The Philadelphia Story contains some of the best acting performed by screen legends Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart (who won an Oscar for his performance). It reinvigorated Hepburn’s stalling career by turning a healthy profit and earning an Oscar nomination for the actress who had been recently labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
“Joey, do you like movies with gladiators?”
For gladiator movies, none can compare to Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 sweeping epic starring (and executive produced by) Kirk Douglas. The film assembled some of the most talented men working in Hollywood to transport audiences into two male-dominated social worlds of the first century B.C.: The Roman Senate, and a school where slaves are trained to be gladiators. Homosexuality was a common practice in ancient Rome, but the production code enforced by the Hollywood studios during the time of Spartacus’ production presented an interesting challenge for Kubrick and infamous screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. How might these artisans tell a story of the political and physical power of men, stay true to the times they sought to capture, and evade the wrath of the censors? Kubrick and Trumbo met this challenge admirably and artfully, creating one of the most homoerotic studio pictures of all time.
Room, which Emma Donoghue adapted for the screen from her novel of the same name, is a story perhaps inspired by horrific news stories about the finding of women, kidnapped by men and presumed dead, who are discovered after living for years in captivity, often in otherwise unremarkable neighborhoods and houses. Stories of women in peril are nothing new to the silver screen, but here, Donoghue creates a detailed portrait of the woman involved, going beyond the shocking and the sensational to explore the humanity and resilience at its core. The resultant film, released in 2015 and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, tells the story of a mother in peril in a powerful and deeply moving new way. As opposed to other woman-in-captivity narratives from film history, such as Silence of the Lambs whose focus is placed on the journey of the detective who comes to the woman’s rescue. Room, on the other hand, takes the victims’ point-of-view, giving us insight into her psychological response to such traumatic events.
The world of insurance sales will never be as sexy and suspenseful as it is in Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). The renewal of auto insurance, a transaction that nowadays can be completed in minutes from the relative safety of a smart phone, sets off a series of events punctuated by murder and dripping with deceit, seduction, and betrayal in this Hollywood classic. Co-written by Wilder and mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is viewed by many as the first and best American film noir. Studio stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson each took the dual professional risks of playing against type in the film adaptation of a story long viewed as “too taboo” for the screen. Their performances bring life to a razor-sharp script that set the gold standard for film noir, artfully introducing now-clichéd narrative devices like subjective voiceover narration, uncannily accurate detective speculation, and (perhaps most memorably) flirtatious, rapid-fire double entendre. Wilder and Chandler’s script, and particularly Stanwyck’s smoldering performance, keep the audience riveted in suspense for 100-plus minutes, despite the presence of a framing device “spoiling” MacMurray’s fate in the opening scene of the film.