Chinatown

Los Angeles, 1937. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private detective specialising in domestic cases. One day a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up at Jake’s office and hires him to follow her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) who she suspects is having an affair. Jake tracks Mulwray and does indeed photograph him embracing a much younger woman. He gives the photos to Mrs. Mulwray, and soon sees them printed on the front page of the newspaper, only to discover that the woman who hired him wasn’t Mrs. Mulwray, and the real one (Faye Dunaway) is somewhat irked that her husband has been publicly humiliated and has now disappeared, and all this is just the start of a web on intrigue that leads further than Jake could have imagined.
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Batman

Leading up to Gotham City’s bicentennial celebrations, the mayor, the police and the district attorney are all keen on increasing the police presence to stamp out the city’s rampant crime. Mob boss Grissom (Jack Palance) is not keen on this, but even less keen on his second-in-command, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). He sets Napier up to take the fall on a job, but doesn’t expect the city’s masked vigilante, Batman (Michael Keaton), to step in and, in the process of trying to apprehend Napier, accidentally drops him into a vat of acid. The acid dyes Napier’s skin white and his hair green, and a facial injury prior to the fall renders him with a permanent demonic grin, Thus, the Joker is born.
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Terms of Endearment

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series at French Toast Sunday.

Terms of Endearment tells the story of a mother and daughter, Aurora and Emma, played by Shirley MacLaine and, from adulthood onwards, Debra Winger. As a young girl, Emma’s father and Aurora’s husband passes away, leaving the two of them alone with one another. Aurora was always an overprotective mother, who also doesn’t seem to leave the house in order to make money, so her daughter is essentially the main focus of her life. Thus when Emma grows up, marries a young Jeff Daniels and has to move away, both her’s and her mother’s lives are forever altered.

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Terms of Endearment has a reputation for being a thoroughly depressing story. I knew very little about it, other than it featuring a mother/daughter relationship, so I was expecting an almost constant barrage of one sad thing after another, culminating in literally everyone dying, horribly and slowly. Image It’s A Wonderful Life, but instead of the upbeat ending, James Stewart drowned in an ocean of orphan’s tears. That’s how I imagined Terms of Endearment, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this viewing. As it turns out, whilst there is a certain degree of sadness to the story, there’s also plenty of uplifting and even funny parts too. Continue reading

The Shining

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a writer suffering from writer’s block. He takes a job as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, deep in the Colorado Rockies, where he will stay for five months with just his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son, Jake (Danny Lloyd). Whilst at the hotel, all three members of the Torrance family experience otherworldly visions that slowly send Jack insane. Meanwhile, Danny’s ‘gift’ of the shining – the ability to see and hear things that haven’t happened yet or that happened a long time ago – grows stronger.

The Shining is widely regarded as a terrifying film, one of the best horror films made in the past 40 years, but to me it holds a deeper terror, not just because it’s the first truly scary film I can remember watching (and being far too young to watch it when I did). You see, I’ve seen The Shining twice, and both times I’ve watched it have been shrouded in a very real death of someone I know. The first time I saw it my best friend’s brother’s best friend was found dead the next morning. This time, I was interrupted about halfway through the film with a phone call from a friend, informing me that a mutual friend of ours, who neither of us had seen for a while, had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Basically, this is possibly the scariest film I know of, because I can never watch it again for fear of someone I know dying. This adds a whole new dimension to a film that’s scary enough to begin with.

On the surface, there isn’t a lot of traditionally scary elements to The Shining, especially not by modern horror standards. Instead, there’s more of an increasing sense of unease and mental disturbance as Jack descends into the horrors of his own mind, assisted by the various terrifying images thrown up by the hotel. Like the young twin girls Danny sees around the hotel, the elevator erupting with an ocean of blood, or the beautiful naked woman in room 237, who becomes a scabbed and putrid hag in Jack’s arms. And of course there’s the questionable shot of the man in a business suit, probably receiving a favour from a man dressed as a bear, that I’m sure his wife and kids would not be too happy to find out about.

As horror films go, this is impressively effective without having to resort to cheap jump-scares or a monstrous killer on the loose. I’m not often scared by films, but this one has left me a little off ever since, and not just for the personal reasons mentioned earlier. I’m a big fan of how the original protagonist – Jack – eventually becomes the antagonist once perspective focuses more on Jake and Wendy. If I were to pick a fault though, it might be that there’s a few too many elements taking place simultaneously. Firstly, the hotel was apparently built on an Indian burial ground, thereby adding an explanation to the ghostly goings on. This should have been enough, but there’s also Danny’s psychic abilities, which he shares with the hotel’s chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Cruthers), who has the most absurd pictures on his bedroom wall. Then there’s the mysterious suicide of the former caretaker, who killed himself with a shotgun after axing his family in the winter of 1970. And Danny’s finger is his imaginary friend, Tony, who talks to him and tells him what to do. Personally, I think Jack would have gone insane with just the intense writer’s block and having to be locked up with Shelley Duvall and an insane child for 5 months.

The film is pretty much perfectly cast, and Nicholson gives one of the most defining performances of his career. He shows real potential here for his future role as the Joker in Batman, especially once the madness sets in and his maniacal grin and eyebrows take over his face. Elsewhere his prominent brow and bright, glaring eyes are well used to strike fear into all who watch. Duvall is well cast too, though this isn’t a compliment as I think her character is supposed to be supremely annoying, and she succeeds in spades. It’s not often that you root for the axe-wielding psychopath over the innocent damsel in distress in a film, but I have absolutely no qualms about doing so here. 

This being a Kubrick film, it’s a given that a certain amount of flair has been utilised in the cinematography. The most famous example, and my personal favourite, is the long tracking shot following Danny as he wheels around the hotel on his tricycle. Infamously the camera was turned upside down to get it closer to the ground, offering a lower-than-child’s-eye perspective that really adds to the sense of dread, as does the incessant squeaking of the wheels as Danny follows an impossibly labyrinthine path around the hotel, a theme that recurs throughout the film.

The film is rife with too many unanswered questions and unquestioned answers, but due to Kubrick’s meticulous nature these can be assumed as being deliberate, present not only to infuriate the audience, but to keep them discussing the film forever more. Add to this some great quotable lines (“I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m just gonna bash your brains in.”), some of the most famous scenes in cinema (“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”), stellar performances, stunning visuals and a truly haunting score, and you’ve got not just a great horror film, but a great film in any genre. It’s just a shame I can’t watch it ever again.

Choose film 9/10

As Good As It Gets

Jack Nicholson is on fine form here as OCD-afflicted writer Melvin Udall, the least likely man ever to be described as a people person. He spends his days eating at his favourite cafe, being attended by his favourite waitress Carol (Helen Hunt good but not great, though she won the leading actress Oscar in what appears to have been a slow year) and annoying everyone else he comes across, most notably his gay artist neighbour Simon (the always reliable Greg Kinnear), whose dog we find Melvin depositing in the garbage disposal chute at the opening of the film. There’s barely a minority that isn’t critiqued in some way; Cuba Gooding Jr. is described as being the colour of “thick molasses,” the Jews dinging at Melvin’s table (Taub and Cuddy from House!) are informed that their appetites aren’t as big as their noses and, my personal favourite and a line I try to use as often as I can in everyday life, when asked how he writes female characters so well, Melvin replies “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” Genius.

Whilst focussing on Melvin, easily the more entertaining character, this is essentially a triple character study, with the second half of the film following Melvin, Carol and Simon on a road trip to visit Simon’s parents. The supporting characters loss is noticeable, but more than one eye is kept on the comedy even in the more dramatic or sentimental scenes. If this is as good as it gets, I’m fine with that.

Choose film 8/10

Five Easy Pieces

Jack Nicholson is Bobby, a talented pianist who gave up his life of potential greatness to slum it on an oil rig, with a waitress girlfriend and spending his time bowling and gambling with his buddies. The movie is comprised of several great scenes – Bobby playing the piano on the back of a moving truck, trying to order French toast from a difficult waitress (“I want you to hold it between your knees”) and being ‘recognised’ by two girls at a bowling, only to be accused of being bald, but everything between these scenes is forgettable and bland, with only Nicholson’s performance – his reaction at the bowling alley is priceless – being worth paying attention to.
Choose life 5/10

Easy Rider

Starring, directed, written and produced by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, there is every possibility that this film perfectly encapsulates the end of the 60s in America incredibly well, but alas today its relevance is far less. The two stars set out on a drug fueled road trip, casting aside their watches and heading across the American South in search of the true spirit of America, and unfortunately they find it everywhere they go.
Being a child of the 80s and 90s, I’ve only known drugs to be illegal, harmful, detrimental to your wellbeing and generally a bad idea (Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream were important parts of my youth), so to see their being used with such wild abandon is almost infuriating from an arguably more informed position (arguably because I know more about the effects, but nothing about the experience itself). I can only assume the intense and bizarre results of an acid trip are shown correctly, and if so then this films effect on me is probably the opposite of that intended, I don’t ever want to take drugs or experience such a level of disorientation,
Jack Nicholson makes an all too brief appearance as drunken lawyer George Hanson, owning knowledge of the finest whorehouse in the South, but even he cannot resurrect this aimless love letter to the free love era from the doldrums, though a stark and unforgettable ending is very well implemented.
Choose life 6/10