“It’s an evil fucking room.” Samuel L, Jackson, as Dolphin Hotel manager Gerald Olin, sums up the nature of the evil in 1408 with his usual pithy bluntness. In this intense horror flick based on a Stephen King short story and directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström, there are no visible ghosts (well, maybe a few short-lived ones), headless phantoms, or flesh-eating zombies. And thank God, because it’s generally so much scarier without them. The baddies in this film are forces unseen, demons who possess a room rather than haunt it. Part nightmare, part acid trip, part psychological thriller, 1408 is one of the more successful King adaptations, combining the cerebral with the visceral in a way that may even outstrip Kubrick’s The Shining (which, for the record, has never been one of my favorite Kubrick films)..
There’s a moment in Richard Linklater’s mildly diverting—though grossly overtouted—magnum opus Boyhood that aptly serves as the point of departure for my critical reaction to it. It’s photography class, and slacking high schooler Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is frittering around in the dark room instead of buckling down and honing his craft, a fact that his snitty teacher accosts him about. Sure, the guy’s a scruffy-bearded, sanctimonious pusbag, but even a douche can be right sometimes.
There are films that ramble, films that pander, and films that needlessly exploit. Spring Breakers achieves the rare dishonor of excelling at all three. Apparently director Harmony Korine believes that the best way of satirizing the moral decadence that continues to rip apart society’s seams is to rub peoples’ noses in sex and violence. Given the maturity level of your average sex-starved teeny-bopper wannabe, that’s like giving a chocolate bar to a six-year-old and reprimanding him for enjoying it. Spring Breakers, despite its pseudo-intellectual pretensions, has the essential qualities of a mass-audience-pleasing film. Korine’s acid-rave cinematography, spiraling around beaches and party rooms showing off bikini-clad bods, glamorizes the lusts for nether pleasures. Everyone knows that the weenie is an easier muscle to work than the brain.
Suspicion is an important element of the movie-watching experience. We engage with the plot by developing reasoned pre-conclusions about how events will unfold. We make assumptions before the truth is revealed. But for Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine), a wealthy ingenue gripped by a growing fear that her playboy husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) is planning to murder her for her life insurance policy, suspicion is synonymous more with the terror of presumed inevitability than with the anticipation of knowing. Suspicion, however, cautions us to be ever mindful of all eventualities when solving a case.
Orson Welles’s movies have thus far failed to hold me spellbound (yes, that includes Citizen Kane), even if I might occasionally be lulled into temporary hypnosis by their technical wizardry. And I find that The Stranger fails at delivering even such ephemeral thrills, let alone any insight into the human condition. Surprisingly, the film sports comparatively little of the celebrated wunderkind’s characteristic emphasis on style.
Alexander Payne’s acerbically witty satire Election could have been a prequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film points out that American high schools, far from functioning as the nation’s first line of defense against ignorance, are petri dishes for the infectious disease of political power. Student government is this breeding ground, and all who oppose it are—as any crook or liar could tell you—lepers who should be quarantined for their nonconformity. Hypocrisy, thy name is politics.