In 1960, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment garnered kind words from the New York Times (“gleeful, tender and even sentimental”) and Time (“funniest film made in Hollywood since Some Like It Hot” ). It was nominated for ten Oscars and won five. In 2015, this beloved film received an A+ from IndieWire, while The Guardian called it “absolutely brilliant.” Yet as I rewatched it, the film’s dark humor has transitioned into an almost-gallows humor, often uncomfortable in the implications as they reflect where we are today – which is to say, the film encapsulates a criticism of modern society that we seem to have only amplified.
It’s hard to deny it: The Birds is funny.
Hitchcock’s 1963 masterpiece certainly does not seem like a comedy on paper. A horrific polemic on the end of humanity, the film ought to draw screams, not giggles. And yet something about it is simply hilarious. Rather than feeling sympathy towards Melanie Daniels and company as they fight their way through hordes of monstrous birds, modern audiences can often be found laughing at their feeble attempts at survival.
Note: This clip is from a version of the film dubbed in French
Larry Fessenden’s 2006 The Last Winter brings us environmental catastrophe, a hauntingly real world-ending thriller. Fessenden introduces North Corporation, a government-backed oil research and building team, working under the watchful eye of two environmental experts. They are all living in the same Alaskan base-camp, the builders trying to complete their oil construction project, and the environmentalists trying to prevent disaster. Slowly, and then with sweeping speed, members of this community start brutally dying, as a “creature” of environmental collapse bares its razor-sharp teeth.
At the height of his fame, Jim Henson delivered two films that deviated from his renowned Muppets and Fraggle Rock franchises. The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) hint at where Henson could have taken puppetry had he lived longer. They represent the best of Henson’s fantasy world-building, beautifully crafted scenery, and, mastery of the puppet arts. More than thirty years later, revisiting these films produces two insights. The self-evident one is that they withstand the test of time; still heavy, haunting, and Homeric in the case of The Dark Crystal, while Labyrinth remains charged, comical, and campy. The lesser realized truth is that both films are hallmarks of a storytelling that sought to strike a balance between adult and child audiences, challenging adult notions about certain forms of entertainment.
It was the great Alfred Hitchcock himself who coined the term MacGuffin. Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot trigger used to propel a movie’s storyline along. It is why a movie’s characters do what they do, go where they go, but apart from this, it holds little or no importance. It exists to create an engine for sending characters on their movie mission. In North by Northwest, for example, the MacGuffin is Cary Grant’s James Mason. In Notorious, characters keep making reference to “secret papers” and to some sort of “sand” hidden in a wine bottle. Is it plutonium? We are never told and Hitchcock assures us that a MacGuffin is “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about, but the audience don’t care.”
Cannibalism has been featured in cinema for decades, often found within jungle-set narratives – anything from Tarzan films to African Screams and Italian cannibal films like Cannibal Holocaust – and zombie films, like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. More often than not, cannibal focused narratives either take place somewhere exotic, featuring a cannibalistic “other” or are otherwise rooted in the supernatural. Most of these films, however, were directed by men. In the hands of female filmmakers, cannibalism takes on a more intimate – though equally repulsive role on screen, if not even more so.
“Nothing is as it seems” was the thematic starting point when Nicolas Roeg envisioned the iconic horror-drama Don’t Look Now (1973). The phrase not only matches the recurring events in the film where John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) desperately tries to make sense of what he sees, but also informs the artistic rendition of the idea, “doubt what you see,” imbuing the audience with a sense of mistrust. The imagery and editing style of the film are aligned with this thematic statement, reaffirming the film’s status as not just an awesome horror flick but also an art film where every element is carefully and purposefully designed, performed, and built to elicit a specific response from the audience.
In 1999, Stanley Kubrick cast then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to play well-to-do Manhattan doctor Bill Hartford and his wife, Alice, in what would be his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The film’s cryptic title and mysterious, sexy trailer, set to Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,” caught my eye, especially as I was a teenage Kubrick fanatic and closet Cruise admirer. After nearly three hours in a darkened theater, I wasn’t sure what I had seen, but I knew I liked it. Looking back almost twenty years later and after many repeat screenings, I’m not sure the film is as sexually liberated and transgressive as I once thought. Herein, then, I take a closer look at the film’s messages on marriage, fidelity and Tom Cruise’s mysterious on-screen sexuality.
Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Museo, aside from being a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, is unique in that it considers the precarious morality of history museums. Based on a 1985 heist, in which two thieves made off with 124 artifacts from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, it explores the tension between a country’s cultural “heritage” and the indigenous cultures that the country robbed and appropriated.
Exactly four decades after Jacques Tourneur terrified audiences with his quick and moody werecat horror film Cat People in 1942, Paul Schrader – following the success of American Gigolo – released a nearly in-name-only remake. The cultural climate in 1982 was vastly different than when Tourneur was making his film. Schrader’s remake, after all, came in the same year as the gleefully excessive epic Conan the Barbarian, the ultra-gory remake of The Thing, and slasher films like The Slumber Party Massacre and Friday the 13th: Part III testing the limits of on screen carnage. But where was the sex?