Irréversible, directed by Gaspar Noé, 2002
What's there to say about Noé's thumb in the eye of modern cinema than hasn't been said before? Even more than the graphic violence and prolonged rape scene, Irréversible is disturbing by virtue of its very construction. Noé's use of rumbling music, long takes, and a camera that manically jitters and swoops through each scene left me disoriented, to say the least. The camera's tilt-a-whirl trip also indicates when the story is traveling back in time, because it starts with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) finding Alex (Cassel's real-life wife, Monica Belluci) being taken to the hospital after a brutal beating and rape and ends with a vision of beauty and promise that is heartbreaking.
Obviously, I'm not the only viewer to consider whether or not Noé is merely an art school grad looking to shock and offend with violence and slurs. The line between creating boundary-pushing art and mental masturbation is razor thin, and even now I'm still not sure where Noé falls in that spectrum. Critics and audiences have walked out of Irréversible or closed their eyes to certain scenes, and I can't say I blame them. Even if you can watch a vicious rape scene that goes on and on and on or a horrific murder by fire extinguisher, chances are good that you'll get motion sick from the camera. After his movie left a lingering fug in my brain for days afterward, seeing his other movies seem like a double-dog dare or an act of literally nauseating masochism. But I can't say I'm not tempted.
The Baxter, directed by Michael Showalter, 2005
Here's a palate refresher after Irréversible. The Baxter is a funny, sweet, and weird romantic comedy written by, directed, and starring Michael Showalter. His character Elliot is a dorky accountant who is a Baxter, which is his grandmother's term for an old-fashioned but boring guy who often gets left behind for someone more exciting. Which is exactly what happens at the very beginning of the movie: his sexy, stylish fiancée Caroline (Elizabeth Banks) leaves him at the altar for her cooler, super-rich ex-boyfriend Bradley (Justin Theroux -- why does he usually play jackasses?). That's not a spoiler; it happens at the very beginning and Elliot goes back to show how things went awry right as their wedding day neared.
Showalter is one-third of the comedy group STELLA, along with David Wain and Michael Ian Black, who also make appearances in the movie, along with other guys from their comedy gang like Paul Rudd, Joe Lo Truglio, and Ken Marino, in an all-too-brief cameo. Their brand of humor is off-kilter but somehow charming. Of course Elliot likes sock garters! They're very practical. And what's wrong with raking leaves? It is quite relaxing, you know. It's this sort of goofiness combined with the scene-stealing Michelle Williams that makes The Baxter a lovely little rom-com. Williams plays a temp named Cecil Mills who is sort of a female Baxter; her boyfriend Dan (Rudd) totally hits it off with Bradley and doesn't give a crap about her singing aspirations. Her rumply brown hair and big earnest eyes give The Baxter a bit of a screwball twist. And in the end, isn't one person's Baxter another person's perfect match?
The Dead Zone, directed by David Cronenberg, 1983
I love David Cronenberg, and I can't believe I never realized he directed this. And I love Christopher Walken because, well, who doesn't? Walken plays it straight in this spooky Stephen King adaptation about a regular schoolteacher who has a car accident and slips into a five-year coma. When Johnny Smith wakes, he finds that the world has passed him by; he has no job, his muscles are atrophied from disuse, and the love of his life gave up and got married to some schmuck. Another unfortunate byproduct of this accident is that now Johnny experiences traumatizing psychic visions when he touches people. What follows is a somewhat convoluted story that manages to tie in his lost love Sarah, one of Johnny's tutoring students and his rich father, a crooked politician (Martin Sheen, in what seems like a sweaty, coked-fueled mania), and Johnny's realization that he can use his power to not just see the future but also change it.
Stephen King's short stories and novels have been successfully adapted for the screen many times with mixed results. Of the many King adaptation films put out in the '80s, some fans rank The Dead Zone up there with The Shining as the cream of the crop. While Walken was eerily good as a straight-laced schoolteacher whose life was ruined by a twist of fate, something about the story lacked cohesion and felt disjointed to me.
Now that I've seen The Dead Zone, Cronenberg seems like an odd choice for director. Cronenberg was well along the way of establishing himself as the king of body horror by the time he did The Dead Zone; he already had Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome under his belt by the time he entered The Dead Zone. And while Zone could be forced into Cronenberg's recurring theme of the horror of the body -- its mutations, its illnesses, its monstrousness -- it doesn't quite jibe. Even in Scanners, Cronenberg plays with the idea of psychic phenomenon, but in a way that has graphic physical repercussions. I'm not quite sure what attracted Cronenberg to the project, but to me, the final product was not as visually striking, mentally stimulating, or subversive as the other films he's directed throughout his career.