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One of the best films of the 1990s.
In the aftermath of _Pulp Fiction_, much of the filmmaking of the 1990s thrived upon attempts to appear "edgy" within the constructs of independent films, or merely to provide empty shock value cliches. And no film ever came close to the sheer cleverness of Tarantino's masterpiece.
_Trainspotting_, however, somehow manages to take the excesses of the mid-90s and rise far, far above the cinematic cliches that it easily could have become. A film that tackles any hot-button social issue can, and usually does, simply become a didactic propaganda piece. Thankfully, _Trainspotting_ is vastly more intelligent in its edginess and its shock.
In order to appreciate _Trainspotting_ fully, the viewer must abandon any preconceptions about what defines truly great cinema, because this film defies convention at nearly every turn. And with the rapid pace of its plot, that's quite a bit of ground to cover.
Though a great deal of the picture's brilliance is derived from director Danny Boyle's consistent rejection of typical cinematic techniques, the most satisfying and _best_ aspect of _Trainspotting_ is that Boyle creates a film that is neither pro-drug or anti-drug. Instead, he maintains a rare objectivity throughout the film, depicting this fascinating array of complex, beautifully acted characters with an honesty that it seldom captured on film. And, given the life that each character lives, it's nearly incomprehensible that a director would refrain from influencing the viewer's impressions in any way, yet that's exactly what Boyle does.
The dialogue-- or at least what portions of the brogue-drenched dialogue American viewers will be able to comprehend-- is alternately hilarious, raw, and brutal. And Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle bring a remarkable compassion and depth to their portrayals of characters that could have easily lapsed into cliche.
Despite its sheer brilliance, _Trainspotting_ is not a film that's easy to watch. The viewer is bombarded with images that transcend visceral discomfort in their horror-- this movie contains two of the most graphic, horrifying scenes I've ever encountered. But, amazingly, none of these elements is used merely for shock value. Though the viewer will be mortified by some of the things that happen onscreen-- the well-documented dive into Scotland's most vile public toilet, for example-- these scenes all make _perfect sense_ within the context of a masterfully told story.
In order to notice all of the subtlety that also exists in _Trainspotting_, repeat viewings are necessary, primarily to reduce some of the most powerful shocks ever-so-slightly, though their effects are never lost entirely. Some of the images will likely haunt even the most cynical, jaded viewer for weeks.
RATING: 10 out of 10. Never patronizing and completely unpretentious, _Trainspotting_ is one of the most daring, unconventional films ever made. It inspires a level of discomfort rivaled by very few movies, because, even at its most graphic, Boyle never insults the viewer with mere shock tactics. Brilliantly acted, directed, and written, with a truly rare objectivity that allows each viewer to interpret its story on his/her own terms.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
For once, the Academy wasn't entirely inaccurate!
When most novels-- the ones worth reading, at least-- are converted into films, the results are, in most instances, vastly inferior; on rare occasions, the movie adaptations equal or even surpass the creative impact of their written forms.
_The Silence of the Lambs_ is one such film. Though it is quite different from Thomas Harris' widely revered novel-- and I will refrain from elaborating upon these differences because everyone should, at some point, sit down and read Harris' finest work-- the film is no less an artistic triumph.
The strength of _The Silence of the Lambs_ is in the tense interplay between Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling and Sir Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lechter. The rapport between their characters is both riveting and bone-chilling in its intensity, and the thought of lesser actors tackling such scenes is perhaps as frightening as any of this masterful film's horror. Their performances are the driving force behind the film.
Jonathan Demme's direction is also first-rate. Though the score is occasionally too obvious and overpowering, his decisions-- from sweeping camera pans to tightly framed close-ups-- are generally wise, and they give the film the uncomfortable atmosphere needed to create the dramatic tension that sustains the viewer's interest through to the movie's unsettling climactic scenes.
Easily one of the best films of the 1990s, a decade characterized by extravagance, _The Silence of the Lambs_ is sufficiently daring, while managing a certain restraint within all of its elements-- the intelligently-composed screenplay, Demme's direction, and the ensemble acting-- that allows it to transcend to an artistic level far above most every other film of the past ten years.
RATING: 10 out of 10. It's not entirely perfect, but _The Silence of the Lambs_, with its unrivaled intensity and passion, epitomizes the psychological thriller genre. A decade from now, it will be considered a "canonical" film with the likes of _Citizen Kane_ and _To Kill a Mockingbird_.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Beautiful in its restraint.
Being the cynic that I am, it's my inclination to look for the weaknesses of films that ultimately detract from their overall quality. How refreshing it is that, on occasion, a film is so masterfully crafted that I can simply take in all that it has to offer. Such is the case with _The Shawshank Redemption_.
And with _The Shawshank Redemption_, it isn't an issue of the excellence of the different components of the film; instead, it's an issue of the way that all of the elements of this movie-- the writing, directing, and acting-- are so vastly superior to those of most every other film.
It's difficult to imagine two things more cliched than "Prison Dramas" and films about "The Triumph of the Human Spirit." Though _The Shawshank Redemption_ certainly qualifies as both of those cinematic cliches, there's nothing about the film that seems even the least bit tired. The unique characters of Red and Andy Dufrense bring an unexpected liveliness to a film that could have easily been both obvious and trite-- such as _The Green Mile_.
Because of the intelligently-written screenplay, with its engaging plot twists and historically appropriate dialogue, coupled with truly remarkable performances by both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman that convey all of the depth and honesty of their challenging characters, _Shawshank_ improves upon the repeated viewings that are necessary to take in all that it has to offer. The unparalleled depth of this movie allow the viewer to gain something new-- and something ultimately positive-- from each additional viewing.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of _The Shawshank Redemption_ is the restraint that director Frank Darabont uses in unfolding this multifaceted story. When approaching a film with even a fraction of the thematic load of this one, most directors simply succumb to the too-easy temptation to tack a didactic, heavy-handed morality statement onto the last sequence. Darabont attains a rare closure; he _doesn't_ moralize. He allows the viewer to make his/her own judgments about each of the characters and the fate that he ultimately meets over the course of the film.
RATING: 10 out of 10. In a decade, _The Shawshank Redemption_ will be grouped into the cinematic canon alongside such triumphs as _Citizen Kane_ and _Dr. Strangelove_. It's not an unmerited distinction. An example of truly flawless filmmaking.
As vicious as they come...
*Possibly contains mild plot spoilers. You have been warned!*
The most ingenious of the so-called "dark comedies" are successful for the way that they manage to take a most unpleasant aspect of human society and lambast said sociological flaw as shrewdly as possible. _Fargo_, for example, tackles middle class complacency, while _Election_ celebrates the triumph of human greed.
_Heathers_, undoubtedly one of the most vicious, relentlessly cynical films in a genre that thrives on its use of satire, focuses on the pettiness and ill-conceived social mores upon which the uniquely American construct of "upward social mobility" are based. Certainly no one who views this film will ever look at the game of croquet in quite the same way again.
And therein lies the greatest strength of _Heathers_ as a film-- its uncanny ability to remove the commonplace from the reality that the viewer knows and to reconstruct the symbols it chooses-- including croquet; funerals; pep rallies; and, in one of the film's most memorable scenes, mineral water-- within the context of the fictional Westerburg High in such a way that, although greatly distorted, an uncomfortable familiarity is retained. The effective use of all of these reconstructions is a vicious cariacature of a power struggle that is based upon little more than which of the involved individuals can exhibit the most grossly deviant behavior without getting caught.
And those individuals are characters fully developed to a truly rare extent, as the motives of even the minor players such as Heather McNamara (as opposed to Heather Chandler or Heather Duke...) are explored. Winona Rider gives one of the very best performances of her accomplished career as Veronica Sawyer, the member of "The Heathers" who dares to challenge the status quo. The results, of course, are gloriously disastrous, as her involvement with Christian Slater's-- also in peak form-- mysterious, murderous Jason Dean nearly results in the destruction of Westerburg in its entirety. As is, Veronica says it best when she writes, "Our love has a body count."
The most satisfying complexity of _Heathers_ is that, at the ultimate, explosive resolution of the struggle for supreme popularity and control of Westerburg, the most overtly corrupt character actually _does_ ascend to authority. Though she does maintain a certain strength of character that permits her to promise some important changes by film's end, Veronica's method for attaining the power that allows her to make such a decree could not be called noble, not even by the most unflinching cynic.
As far as films go, _Heathers_ is brilliantly crafted. The dialogue is hilarious, with vicious one-liners coming at a rapid-fire pace. All of the performances, particularly those of the perfectly-matched Rider and Slater, are first rate, and they convey a self-awareness and complexity that might seem to belie individuals who so thoroughly revel in their own shallowness. Interesting murder sequences and satisfying plot twists keep _Heathers_ engaging for the duration of Veronica's tale of redemption.
RATING: 10 out of 10. One of just a handful of near-perfect films out there. Never taking itself too seriously, _Heathers_ carries shrewd social criticism without ever being obvious. A should-be classic film that, for now, must settle for "cult" status. A gleefully vicious satire of adult society packaged into an intelligent film that should appeal to anyone who has ever attended high school.