The return of the classic thriller. Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Gift—a compact picture written and directed by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton—is the best American thriller in 20 years or more. On its own limited terms, The Gift is an almost perfect piece of work; in an extraordinarily controlled debut behind the camera, Edgerton doesn’t make a false move. And The Gift benefits from an almost infinitely shaded leading performance by the longtime sitcom star and light movie comedy breakout Jason Bateman, who clearly understood he had the kind of role here that could redefine his career and simply knocked it out of the park.
Bateman plays Simon Cullum, a corporate suit who has moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) for a new job that might eventually make him a billionaire. He’s slick and she’s unsteady, having had a miscarriage the previous year that led to some kind of nervous breakdown that involved pills and alcohol. At Williams-Sonoma, they run into Gordo (played by Edgerton himself), an odd high-school classmate of Simon whom Simon does not remember.
Gordo begins showing up at their new home in the Hollywood Hills bearing gifts of welcome. He’s awkward, and Robin is awkward, and she feels sorry for him and grateful to him and somehow haunted by him. But quickly Gordo’s attention begins to seem stalkerish, and Simon decides Gordo must be banished from their lives.
Whereas in many movies what I’ve just summarized would constitute 90 percent of the plot, The Gift is only just getting started. It does what every great thriller does, which is to create a jangly and unsettled atmosphere, startle the bejesus out of you every few minutes, and consistently surprise you by taking the story to places you didn’t expect. I’m very good at guessing thriller twists, but The Gift completely took me by surprise three or four times.
Go see it as soon as you can, because while it is a modest hit—it’s already made $30 million against its minuscule $5 million budget—it won’t last much longer in theaters. And this one really deserves to be seen in a big dark auditorium. As the lights came up and the credits rolled, I got to wondering just why it was The Gift seemed so unusual an offering these days. After all, the thriller genre has been a reliable cinematic staple from the earliest days of the talkies. And it was the bread and butter of Alfred Hitchcock, who made himself the most famous director in movie history over his six-decade career until Steven Spielberg took the title from him. Hitchcock died in 1980, but the thriller did not die with him; far from it.
It practically took over Hollywood in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a succession of gigantic smashes from Jagged Edge to Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct to Sleeping with the Enemy, and culminated in an Oscar for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs (the first thriller since Hitchcock’s Rebecca in 1940 to win Best Picture).
These movies spawned a million cheap imitations that flooded the world’s video stores (remember video stores?), mostly with titles that included the word “instinct” or the word “attraction.” Fourth-rank ex-kid actors made second careers starring in them (remember C. Thomas Howell? or Nicole Eggert?). The knockoffs then began dominating the fare offered by cable channels late at night (remember Skinemax?). Once the primary form of nerve-jangling entertainment for adults, the thriller became an onanistic diversion for teenagers. And so the genre went cold.
The takeover of the multiplex by those same teenagers left very little room for the thriller, which relies for its power on specifically adult anxieties—fears that a spouse isn’t what he or she seems, fears that something will happen to a beloved child, and, overarching it all, the fear of losing one’s mind. Instead, those very real and very human fears were completely pushed aside cinematically by the fear of the supernatural. After the colossal box-office triumphs of Scream in 1996 (it cost $15 million and earned $173 million) and The Blair Witch Project in 1999 (an astounding $250 million on a $500,000 budget), most movie studios created production lines solely for the purpose of generating cheap horror pics that would create a steady annual revenue stream. That’s why there have been six Paranormal Activitys, several Insidiouses and a whole bunch of other franchises whose names I can’t remember (remember how easy it used to be to remember things?).
But is anyone noticing?Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Right now, in New York, the big news is the Broadway opening of a musical biography of Alexander Hamilton told in hip-hop. Such a deliberately anachronistic retelling of American history is automatic grounds for deep skepticism. And yet the chorus of raves for Hamilton—which extend from Barack Obama to the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, and even to Brian Anderson, the brilliant editor of the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal—has generated a kind of cultural excitement that itself seems anachronistic.
The increasingly unwilling suspension of disbelief. Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation makes no sense. Even more striking, this fifth installment in the Tom Cruise movie series based on the 1960s television show doesn’t even try to make sense.
Amy Schumer benefits from Judd Apatow’s formula. Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
With Trainwreck, the comedy impresario Judd Apatow has once again made a movie about an irresponsible adult-child who is compelled to grow up by the end of the film. This was the plotline of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the two box-office sensations that made Apatow’s career, and it resurfaces here.
But there are fewer laurels for craftsmanship. Jul 27, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Every now and then, on Twitter or Facebook, I find myself referring to something I really enjoyed as “genius” or “a work of genius” or “pure genius.” Why do I do this? After all, I don’t actually think Richard Benjamin’s performance as an unhinged Jewish Van Helsing in the 1979 Dracula parody Love at First Bite is “genius.” I think it’s hilarious and unexpected and that Benjamin’s turn raises the movie’s comic game.
Inside Riley Anderson is the better place to be. Jul 20, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The new Pixar film about an 11-year-old girl’s moment of crisis and change is called Inside Out, and it’s a perfect title—maybe too perfect for its own good. Everything the movie shows going on inside Riley’s head is glorious. And that’s most of what we see, so Inside Out deserves to be called the best American movie of the year so far.
The dinosaur quality of a blockbuster franchise.Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Jurassic World is a movie about itself. It tells a story about the difficulty of making special effects exciting when it seems like audiences have already seen it all. In the movie, the titular theme park has been built on the same island that hosted the old Jurassic Park back in the day when people would gasp upon seeing a realistic-looking T. rex—just as many of the same multiplexes that are showing Jurassic World showed Jurassic Park 22 years ago.
Not for the first time, the star outshines the movie. Jun 22, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 39 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
As a comic actress, Melissa McCarthy resembles a first-rate baseball pitcher—because, unlike many of her brethren, who have a singular shtick and stick with it, she has both a curve and a fastball.
The heart and soul of a late revelation. Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
William Butler Yeats might have described an old person as a “paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick,” but then Yeats didn’t live to see the 72-year-old actress Blythe Danner bloom like a bird of paradise in the first starring role she’s had on screen in her 43-year career. I’ll See You in My Dreams was made over the course of 18 days for $500,000, and its modesty is evident in every frame.
The first postapocalyptic vision remains the best. May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
One Friday evening in 1980, I journeyed to the far West Side of Chicago to a drive-in on Cicero Avenue and attended what may have been the strangest double feature in the history of the world. The top of the bill was The Gong Show Movie, a film written by, directed by, and starring Chuck Barris, the host of the TV show of the same name. The B-picture was something called Mad Max.
When the superheroes join forces, it’s time to head for the hills.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Offering an opinion of Avengers: Age of Ultron is like reviewing Chex Mix. According to what stand-ard should one judge this mixture of breakfast cereal and pretzels and croutons and salt? Even if you find it bland or uninteresting you’ll probably have a few handfuls anyway. And if you love it, you love it uncritically and unreservedly—until, perhaps, you eat too much of it and then feel a little sick.
The camera as chronicler of marital deadlock.
May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
There are several key shots in movies—the visual strategies directors and cinematographers and editors use to establish scene, mood, movement, and dramatic tension, guiding the viewer’s eye to important information.
The ‘auteur theory’ meets the life and work of Charles WaltersApr 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 29 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Fifty years ago, a wildly heated cultural battle broke out between two movie critics: a New Yorker named Andrew Sarris and a San Franciscan named Pauline Kael. Sarris was the chief American expositor of the “auteur theory,” which emerged from French film magazines in the 1950s and asserted that the director of a movie should be considered its author.
Liam Neeson in action is worth watching. But for how long?Mar 30, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 28 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Run All Night is unquestionably the best of the seemingly endless series of thrillers Liam Neeson has made since 2008’s Taken made him a most unlikely action star at the age of 56. And yet, rather than being celebrated for rising above the others, Run All Night has been received so poorly by moviegoers one must now presume that Neeson’s surprising later-in-life dash through the international box office as one of the cinema’s most reliable money-makers is nearing its end.
Moviegoing heads for the exitMar 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 27 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Will anyone go to the movies 25 years from now? Will there even be movie theaters 25 years from now? These are not idle questions. New research from the Motion Picture Association of America shows how the moviegoing audience of those between the ages of 25 and 39 has contracted precipitously—dropping almost 25 percent over the past four years.