Tag: jack nicholson

The Shining

The Shining (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets an interview at the Overlook Hotel for the open caretaker position. The job starts before the start of winter and lasts till May which is perfect for Jack because he feels isolation is what he needs in order to organize ideas for his upcoming novel. Although the manager of the hotel, Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson), admits that being a caretaker is not physically demanding, from running the boiler to turning on the heater in select areas of the building, it can be quite a challenge psychologically. Mr. Ullman confirms that in the winter of 1970, the seclusion has gotten so bad that the caretaker at the time murdered his wife and two daughters with an ax. Jack laughs with assurance, claiming that nothing like that will happen during his watch.

Directed with great eye and execution by Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” has made a permanent imprint on my subconscious and imagination that just about every year, I find myself dreaming about it. It is foreboding and beautiful from the moment it begins with an aerial view of Jack’s car running toward the hotel, accompanied by hair-raising gothic horror music, until the final shot showing a curious picture from July 4, 1921.

The picture starts to gain momentum when Jack and his family are given a tour of the hotel. The lobby is gorgeous, boasting framed photos of important visitors as well as American-Indian designs on carpets and wall tapestries, the kitchen is enormous with numerous metallic utensils and equipment, the freezer is meat galore, and the storage room is teeming with sweet goodies. But the Overlook Hotel’s beauty is clearly meant to attract visitors from all over the world. And just like all places, it has a history. This one happens to sit on an Indian burial ground and Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack’s young son, can feel that this place, despite its beauty, offers something rotten and awful.

Particularly memorable is a critical scene between Danny and the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), because it showcases the director’s characteristic laser focus on what needs to be delivered and how to go about it. Although the conversation is constantly evolving, from Danny’s imaginary friend named Tony to what might be hiding in room 237, its crux is what having the “shine” means.

The casting of Crothers is genius because he commands a voice that oozes wisdom seemingly without effort, the kind of voice that children would be attuned to listen to and really hear what needs to be said. We are the children in this story not only because of the mystery and hidden horrors it offers but also in terms of the hotel’s space and structure. Kubrick places us into this specific place and we are in the middle of it, marveling at its enormity.

Shelley Duvall, playing Jack’s terrified wife, gets unfair criticism for being too dramatic that she becomes ineffective in the role. I am often at a loss when such a critique comes up because I cannot imagine anyone else playing Wendy Torrance. I believed Duvall as a character who is fragile, weak, and easily bullied by her husband. Scenes where Wendy is required to go toe-to-toe against her increasingly erratic—and psychotic—husband offer wonderful entertainment. There is humor, horror, and grandiosity in both performances. Without Duvall’s constant hyperventilation, while looking incredibly pale as if she were in a permanent state of shock, Nicholson’s performance would not have had an effective sounding board. Take away one and the other loses resonance.

“The Shining” offers an ascending sentiment of dread—one scene literally taking place on a staircase as Jack announces that he plans to bash his wife’s head in. To discuss its technical brilliance, especially with its utilization of the Steadicam during the hallway sequences, is beyond the scope of this review.

But I will a point of saying this: The picture is the antithesis of so-called mind-boggling movies that “require” to be seen several times for audiences to fully understand and appreciate its mysteries. It can be seen only once and although it will leave the viewer with questions, the viewer is likely to be satisfied. In my case, however, I make sure to revisit the picture annually to relish the consummate filmmaking.


Heartburn (1986)
★★ / ★★★★

Rachel (Meryl Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson), both single and successful, meet at a wedding. Rachel, a food critic, cannot help but notice Mark’s aggressive glances every time she looks his way so she asks her friends about him. It turns out that Mark is a hot shot columnist and has a certain… reputation with the ladies. The next thing she knows, he asks her for a drink, she coyly accepts, and they are married.

“Heartburn,” based on the novel and screenplay by Nora Ephron, surprised me because even though its core is about a wilting marriage, it is very much in touch with the effervescent angle of their relationship. That is, the comedy in the details of what Mark and Rachel share which show us that, at least for a time, it makes sense that the two of them decided to get married, that they did not jump into something for the sake of consoling an itch.

I enjoyed that the couple are painted as adults taking a part in a mature relationship but they are far from perfect and their situations, from the stresses of the renovation involving the dilapidated house they purchased to the increasing annoyance and ennui they start to feel toward one another, are not always ideal. Even though it appears as though they have more money and means than most couples, the screenplay allows us to identify with them through problems that a lot of partners, married or otherwise, have gone or might go through.

Streep and Nicholson are joyous to watch because there are times when their dialogue does not come across as scripted. For instance, when the two of them eat pizza and burst in song, I felt very awkward, at least initially, then gradually got into it and found the whole thing charming and delightful. Eventually, however, the film focuses on the heartbreak Rachel experiences when it finally clicks that her husband is having an affair and he is making a fool out of her.

I found the writing one-sided—which is frustrating. Since all the scenes of the affair happens off-screen, the blow of the infidelity, at least from our perspective, is softened. While we might feel bad for Rachel, we do not feel betrayed by him. Our lack of connection to the husband is strengthened further by the screenplay not allowing us to see or experience what he feels after his wife confronted him. There is almost a sense of unfairness because we watch them get into a relationship as two people coming together but the fallout is dealt with by taking sides.

Lastly, the friendship between Rachel and Richard (Jeff Daniels) is worth delving into but the picture does not make time to establish what makes their friendship work. And so when Rachel turns to Richard for consolation during her darkest trials, we are not moved or touched by what they share.

Nevertheless, I am giving “Heartburn,” directed by Mike Nichols, a marginal recommendation because there are moments in it that do ring true. The performances are strong but is incongruent with a screenplay that lacks consistent wit and focus.

Carnal Knowledge

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are roommates and best friends in Amherst College. They enjoy talking about women, what they like and do not like about them, and the prospect of making love to them. Jonathan spots beautiful Susan (Candice Bergen) slinking across the room. He urges Sandy that he should come over and talk to her. Who knows? He might even get lucky. Although Sandy is not an especially good-looking guy, Susan adores his sensitivity and likes the fact that she is able to talk to him about anything. Jonathan judges his friend’s lack of his experience with jealousy.

“Carnal Knowledge” holds a critical eye on men’s needs. When their requirements are not met, insecurities tend to destroy them from within. The picture shows that although Jonathan and Sandy are opposite in personalities and there is variation in their approaches to interacting with the opposite sex, both have a hunger for being with as many women as possible. The film does not judge them negatively for wanting to experiment. Instead, it observes the characters in absolute curiosity.

The screenplay treats Jonathan and Sandy’s sexual needs as natural. The material is more interested in showing us the men’s inability to recognize happiness and the possibility that it can arrive at their doorsteps in different forms. Because they are too preoccupied with looking for the chance of acquiring something better instead of treasuring and maintaining what they already have, as they age so do their insecurities.

Although Jonathan and Sandy are able to sustain their friendship for many years, they essentially have the same problems and fail to recognize the issues. As a part of the audience, we are forced to wonder if their very close friendship, realistically portrayed, will be able to continue to endure the weight their self-consciousness. And yet, equally interesting, there are times when the friendship, open to interpretation as to whether it is a healthy one, is touching and amusing.

There is sadness in the way Sandy is able to openly communicate to his best mate that marriage requires living a life without glamour but it is almost worth it because there is convenience in the routine. Garfunkel delivers his lines without irony so Sandy sounds like a man who is tired of being limited by a social union but at the same time one who has learned to take comfort in it. Meanwhile, Jonathan confesses that he has begun having trouble with getting an erection. It is amusing not because of his erectile dysfunction but because he has so many deeper problems worth talking about yet the topic he chooses to share is not being able to get it up. Again, there is a disconnect in their relationship.

Written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols, “Carnal Knowledge” provides an incisive portrait of men’s expectations, sexual needs, and fixations. When the intense and cathartic screaming matches finally arrive, as the ones between Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), it is like being in a room with the couple with no door or window escape from and no furniture to hide behind.

The Last Detail

The Last Detail (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Navy men Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) are summoned by their superior for an assignment. They have five days to take young Meadows (Randy Quaid), who has allegedly stolen forty dollars from a polio contribution box, from their base in Norfolk, Virginia and deliver him to a military prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Not only is the kid given dishonorable discharge for his transgression, he is sentenced eight long years in the institution. Buddusky thinks the entire thing is ludicrous, an outrage given its trivial nature, so he is intent on giving Meadows a great time prior to his punishment.

“The Last Detail,” based on the screenplay by Robert Towne, is an infectious and surprising celebration of life amidst the grim eventuality that is imprisonment. The contrast between the comedy that tickles our diaphragms, ranging from the random fight that explodes in a men’s restroom to Buddusky’s hilarious euphemisms about sex, and the understated drama of youth about to be stolen forever proves to be its greatest strength.

The picture showcases a series of fascinating and well-directed scenes which show that although “Bad Ass” Buddusky and “Mule” Mulhall are tough guys, they are in very much in touch with their humanity. Certainly they feel and think about things more than what they let on. A simple scene like when the trio spend some time drinking beer and discussing Meadows’ seeming inability to get angry communicates so clearly and effortlessly about what it means to sympathize with another person not just because all three are Navy men but because they all crave more out of life. We learn their reasons for joining the Navy without big, dramatic moments where the score overpowers the dialogue. Theatrics are inappropriate here because this is a story of three seemingly simple men.

What I enjoyed most about the film, directed by Hal Ashby, is being consistently stupefied by Buddusky because he appears to be a complete jerk on the outside. He sneers without much regard for the feelings of others, rolls his eyes at a slightest hint of boredom, and constantly strives for whatever makes him feel good even at the expense of someone else. Because of his cool guy swagger, I was taken aback and was touched when he shows that he actually wants to do the right thing for Meadows.

He recognizes that the eighteen-year-old, though technically an adult, does not have a voice. It enrages him that Meadows is not more upset about his sentence. Nicholson’s performance is critical because he prevents his character from looking like a one-dimensional sap during the more sensitive moments. As his character tries to accommodate for the kid, it is almost as if Nicholson looks and feels awkward for being so nice.

And because Nicholson’s performance was so enthralling, we are given the opportunity to be more aware of the nuances behind the lines he delivers. The situational humor is great but the joy of watching an actor clearly having fun with his role is something else.

Although bittersweet, “The Last Detail,” based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, is ultimately optimistic. Meadows’ many first time experiences with the two men, essentially strangers, who are assigned to execute a specific job might serve as little nuggets of reminder that there will be a life outside the jailhouse that is worth waiting for.

Five Easy Pieces

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Oil rigger Robert (Jack Nicholson) lived his waitress girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), even though he could no longer stand her. When the two weren’t in bed, they spent time hanging out with another couple, Elton (Billy Green Bush) and Stoney (Fannie Flagg), and playing bowling. When Robert received news from his sister, Tita (Lois Smith), that his father had suffered through two strokes, returning to their fancy home for a visit did not sit well with Robert. However, Tita insisted because the doctor warned that it was likely that their father would pass soon. “Five Easy Pieces,” based on the screenplay by Carole Eastman, was an elliptical character study of a man so unlikable, most of us would likely to suspect that he was one of those people who was simply emotionally void. Robert wasn’t aware of this and it caused him great discontent. In his attempt to make sense of what gnawed at his unhappiness, the picture provided us a series of portraits in which Robert would take out his frustration onto others. The easiest target was Rayette because she talked as if she were uneducated. It didn’t help that she was so needy for affection to the point where, like Robert, I began to get annoyed with her. Maybe she was supposed to come off as irksome in some way. Perhaps not. In any case, it added another layer in terms of whether Robert’s irritation whenever she was around was, in a way, justified. Since we didn’t live with her to know for sure, we were inspired to look closer at the complexities of their potentially toxic relationship. One of the most painful scenes to watch was the bowling match between the couples. While Elton and Stoney were having fun, Robert rolled his eyes and clenched his jaw each time Rayette failed to hit any of the pins. Nicholson’s performance was key because of the way he skillfully navigated his character to exhibit seething anger without relying on histrionics. After all, they were out in public. Oddly, I found it amusing to watch a man so obviously enraged despite the fact that he tried to keep a lid on it. I think I found it funny because I could relate to that on some level. Whenever I’m around with certain individuals that I can’t stand, no matter how much I try to hide how I really feel about them, the truth has a tendency to leak out. Are some people delighted, not in a malicious way, at the chink in my armor? Eventually, Robert decided to take Rayette with him on a road trip toward his home town. On the way, they picked up two hitchhikers, Palm (Helena Kallianiotes) and Terry (Toni Basil), whose goal was to settle in Alaska. The film’s sense of humor reached creative zeniths: Palm’s rant about cleanliness and Robert ordering a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken salad at a diner. The acerbic wit combined with energetic performances defined the picture’s black heart. I very much enjoyed that it felt as though there was no compromise. The film took a more dramatic turn when Robert finally saw his family. We came to understand him a bit more, like discovering his background as a promising pianist and lost potential, without the material cheating the audience of what we came to know and observe in the earlier scenes. Directed by Bob Rafelson, “Five Easy Pieces” was about, but not limited to, Robert getting some form of closure. But like a shattered vase put together by glue, the closure, not necessarily permanent, had cracks and the missing pieces were never to be found. If the vase used to hold water and flowers, you don’t put water in it like before. It’s better that it remains empty, hidden, or replaced altogether.


Batman (1989)
★★ / ★★★★

Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), right-hand man of Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), a powerful but aging gangster in Gotham City, was ordered to acquire money from a safe hidden inside Axis Chemical. Jack was unaware that the assignment was actually a trap meant for him because Grissom found out about the affair between his girl, Alicia (Jerry Hall), and Jack. While Gotham police handled the henchmen, Batman (Michael Keaton) managed to corner Jack. However, just when Napier was about to be apprehended, he fell into a giant cauldron of green chemical which discolored his body. “Batman,” directed by Tim Burton, had an excellent grip when it came to its art direction but everything else left much to be desired. The majority of the action sequences held no special excitement for me yet I found myself admiring the background. For instance, when the cops and criminals chased each other around the factory, I noticed how the steam rose from their sources, how the green liquid poured out of their containers, and how grimy the floors looked. I imagined how it must’ve been like to be there since the inside of the factory looked as repulsive as a sewer that had been placed above ground. However, the way a film looks rarely saves a picture and this was no exception. Based on the screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, we weren’t given much information about Batman’s motivations and, perhaps more importantly, who Bruce Wayne was as a humanitarian, a friend, and a lover. Keaton was quite good in looking solemn and he showed that he was very capable of instilling depth into his character when the material seldom touched upon the story of the man behind the mask. Unfortunately, the writing seemed more interested in what was constantly in front of the protagonist which happened to be a girl. Bruce’s love interest was Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photojournalist whose most recent work was published on Time Magazine, but she might as well have been any other girl taken off the streets. From the way her character was introduced, I expected her to be smart and plucky, someone who experienced the world outside of Gotham. Instead, she easily turned into a damsel-in-distress, an object terrorized by The Joker, rescued by Batman, and romanced by Bruce Wayne. More painfully, it seemed as though she never learned from her mistakes which made the experience of watching her, as beautiful as Basinger was, tedious and almost unbearable. Moreover, I wished that two potentially interesting characters were given more to do: Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), an agent against the war on crime in the city, and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), a reporter for the Gotham Globe. Since their appearances were aimless, they could have not been in the film at all and it would not have made much of a difference in the dynamics of the story. “Batman” was stolen by Nicholson’s performance as The Joker, more amusing than truly menacing. I almost felt bad for him that he had to overact in order to hide the thinness of the material. Meanwhile, I looked at Batman not out of intrigue in terms of what made him tick but curiosity if it was scorching hot underneath all that leather.

How Do You Know

How Do You Know (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) was so passionate about softball, she made a career out of it. But when she was unexpectedly cut from the team, her life became turbulent as she questioned what she should do next. Coincidentally, one of Lisa’s friends gave George (Paul Rudd) Lisa’s phone number because Lisa, during a drunken night, confessed that she was curious about dating a non-athlete for once. George was as normal as they come other than the fact that he was being wrongly implicated in a federal crime. Will Lisa choose Matty (Owen Wilson), a successful baseball player, over currently unemployed George? One of the problems with “How Do You Know” was all of the characters were painfully needy and nice. When they got angry, they would express it but they apologized almost always immediately, like being angry was a sign of immaturity or that it was something to be ashamed of. I understood why the characters were that way because the material was desperate to be different from other romantic comedies where the characters typically would compartmentalize their negative emotions until the very end. But, without the right execution, as it was the case here, the opposite side of the spectrum was just as toxic as the cliché. Furthermore, the script was just not funny. An hour into it, I laughed probably once and chuckled a maximum of three times. When something funny was about to happen, I felt it coming ten seconds before. Casting Jack Nicholson, who played George’s father, was a letdown because he wasn’t given much to do. He was the distant father with a secret but there was nothing else to him. The majority of the picture’s attempt at comedy consisted of George being awkward around the girl he was in love with. As usual, Rudd was his usual charming, somewhat geeky, harmless persona but his character was also one-dimensional. The film contrasted George and Matty in a heavy-handed way. Aside from the obvious that one was a blonde and the other was a brunette, when Lisa would tell a story about how her day went or what was bothering her, Matty would avoid making eye contact. He would do things like ask her if she was hungry or he would start to talk about himself. On the other hand, when Lisa was with George, the hopeless romantic’s eyes were transfixed on her and when he would ask questions, it was directly related to her problems. Naturally, Matty was someone we would enjoy hanging out with and George was someone one we would marry. It was incredibly transparent who Lisa should choose that tension among the trio wasn’t generated. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, “How Do You Know” was not only predictable but it was also two hours long. How do you know when you’re stuck with a bad movie? When you keep checking the clock and asking yourself how many more bad jokes you have yet to sit through.