Friday, November 28, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: Conclusion and Ranking

After spending the last month watching every film Stanley Kubrick ever directed, I am now convinced that he may just be the best director in cinema history. Martin Scorsese will always be my favorite director – he’s the one whose films I return to the most often and who mean the most to be personally, but Kubrick made such brilliant films – films that you can revisit time and again, and continue to discover new things about. Scorsese himself said in A Life in Pictures that while Kubrick didn’t make a lot of films, his films are different each time you watch them – and that is very true. His technical abilities are unmatched – he changed the visual language of film more than any director since Orson Welles or D.W. Griffth. The films are endlessly fascinating, endlessly transfixing, and quite simply brilliant.

Below are how I would personally rank his 16 films – 3 shorts, and 13 features – made over the span of 46 years. I wish there were more films in this resume – but the price we pay for the brilliance of Kubrick was that he had to take the time he did to make them.

16. The Seafarers (1953) – Far and away the least interesting film Kubrick directed – basically a half hour infomercial for The Seafarers Union – which Kubrick clearly made to pay the bills. Nothing wrong with that, but there really is no reason to watch it unless you’re a Kubrick completest.

15. Flying Padre (1951) – Like The Seafarers, a short film made to pay the bills. Supposedly a documentary about a Priest who has to fly to see his spread out congregation, but the film is clearly heavily staged. Really not of much  interest.

14. Fear and Desire (1953) – Kubrick withdrew his feature debut from circulation – and would have been happy for it never to see the light of day. When a copy was discovered, and restored, the world could see why Kubrick didn’t like it. There are isolated moments that work amazingly well – but the dialogue and acting is basically horrible. I’m glad we can see it now – but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

13. Day of the Fight (1951) – The one short of Kubrick’s career that is worth seeing – the first one Kubrick made, based on his photo spread for Look Magazine. There are moments that show Kubrick’s genius in its gestation period, which make it worthwhile. Not a great short by any means – but the only short that feels like a personal project for Kubrick.

12. Killer’s Kiss (1955) – Like Fear & Desire, Killer’s Kiss is at its best when the characters are not talking, and Kubrick is showing his early understanding of shadow and light, and staging some interesting action sequences – including the creepy finale in a mannequin factory. What makes it far better than Fear & Desire is that there is far less talk – and Kubrick is more confident as a story teller. It would most likely be a completely forgotten noir, had Kubrick not gone on to do what he did later.

11. Spartacus (1960) – Of the 11 films Kubrick made after going to Hollywood, instead of doing independent productions like the previous 5, Spartacus is the one that feels less like a Kubrick film. It is a very well-staged Roman Epic – with some great battle sequences, and fine performances by all – but it is basically Kubrick as a director-for-hire – executing someone else’s vision rather than his own. As far as these type of epics of the time go – it’s actually quite good – better than most not directed by David Lean. But it’s also a film that I never really think about – and probably would have watched once and forgotten had it not be a Kubrick film.

10. Full Metal Jacket (1987) – If the whole film was as good as the first 45 minutes, than this film would be much higher on the list. But despite how brilliantly shot the final 70 minutes of the film is, it really doesn’t add anything new to the Vietnam war film, or war films in general, or even the brilliant opening segment during basic training. Be honest – the first two performances and characters you think of when you think of the film are Vincent D’Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey. There’s a reason for that. But half a Kubrick master is still worth celebrating.

9. The Killing (1956) – A brilliantly staged, edited and shot heist film – about a man who is a meticulous planner, undone when others don’t quite follow his plan. As tightly constructed as any film of its sort, with great use of narration, and fine performances. This showed Kubrick had the goods to go onto bigger and better things – and is a brilliant little film in its own right.

8. Lolita (1962) - Kubrick’s Lolita isn’t Nabokov’s Lolita – and it’s hardly even Kubrick’s, since he admitted that if he knew the censorship that would be involved, he probably wouldn’t have made it. But it’s still a fascinating, dark comedy about sexual obsession, brilliantly directed and written – with a quartet of great performances by James Mason as the pathetic Humbert, Shelley Winters as the brash, ignorant woman he marries, Peter Sellers as the libertine Clare Quilty, and yes, Sue Lyon, who keeps Lolita an enigma. Is the film more interesting to write about and discuss than it is to watch – to a certain degree. But it’s still a great film.

7. Paths of Glory (1957) – One of the best anti-war films ever made – Kubrick’s first masterpiece, than for most directors would be the highlight of their career. The film looks at the corrupt class system of war, the senseless cruelty and violence, and that final scene will bring a tear to the eye of anyone with a heart. Brilliantly directed – especially in the trenches.

6. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – The film that I downgraded the most upon the most recent review – perhaps because it is a young man’s film, and I’m not as young as I once was. I know find that I admire the film more than I actually love it – it is among the best shot, edited, score, acted and designed films of Kubrick’s career – and its message is as timely now as it was when it was released. A masterpiece – even if I liked it a little less than I did as a teenager.

5. Barry Lyndon (1975) – The film that I upgraded the most after the most recent re-watching – one of the most beautiful films ever made, as Kubrick found a way to make the 18th Century look on film as it did in the paintings of the period. A story of a passive man, trying desperately to be something he cannot be – and be destroyed as a result. To some, it will be boring – but who cares about them?

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – The more I watch the film, the more mysterious, ambiguous and brilliant Kubrick’s film seems to be. If A Clockwork Orange moved down the list a couple of places because it’s a young man’s film, than Eyes Wide Shut moved up a few spots because it’s the film I relate to most right now in my life. Objective? No – but I don’t really care.

3. The Shining (1980) – After the most recent re-watching, I am now more convinced than ever that The Shining is the best horror film ever made – and every bit as good as the top two films on this list. An endlessly fascinating enigma, puzzle box of a movie, with no real solution that is also brilliantly shot, editing, scored – and never ceases to scare the crap out of me.

2. Dr. Strangelove (1964) – For my money, the best comedy of the sound era – a movie that is simultaneously hilarious throughout, in large part because of the great performances by Peter Sellers, in three roles, George C. Scott, going over the top insane, and Sterling Hayden, doing understated insane, and downright frightening because of its implications of how close we could come to annihilation because of the idiots who are in charge. Scary, hilarious brilliantly directed. Not what we normally think of in a Kubrick film – but every bit as good as anything he has ever made.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – There are a handful of films that can be said to have truly changed cinema history – and 2001 is certainly one of those films. One of the most ambitious films ever made – that wants to do nothing less but to tell the history of humanity, and our place in the larger universe – and how the greatest thing about humanity is our intelligence. Brilliant as sci-fi, brilliant just as a visual experience, but also quietly profound, this is clearly one of the very best films ever made.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick (Offshoot): A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Steven Spielberg and Ian Watson based on the short story by Brian Aldiss.
Starring: Haley Joel Osment (David), Frances O'Connor (Monica Swinton), Sam Robards (Henry Swinton), Jake Thomas (Martin Swinton), Jude Law (Gigolo Joe), William Hurt (Prof. Hobby), Brendan Gleeson (Lord Johnson-Johnson), Robin Williams (Dr. Know), Ben Kingsley (Specialist), Meryl Streep (Blue Mecha), Chris Rock (Comedian).

Since I am writing this review as part of Stanley Kubrick retrospective, I should mention off the top that Steven Spielberg’s A.I. is not Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. I don’t know what Kubrick would have made of the material had he ended up making the film – which as A Life in Pictures implies, he did intend to do after making Eyes Wide Shut – as he wanted to let Special Effects catch up with his vision for the film. But that same documentary has Spielberg say that Kubrick had approached him before he died about directing the film – that Kubrick felt it more matched Spielberg’s sensibility than his own. Judging on what ended up on screen – Kubrick was right. Yet, I have no doubt that Kubrick could have made his version of A.I. as well – and it could also have been great. Spielberg is a great director in his own right however – and smart enough to know that if he was going to take over a project from Kubrick, that he would be stupid to try and do it the way Kubrick would have done it – so he made the film his own. It is undeniably the most Kubrickian film of Spielberg’s career – we see some thematic and stylistic hallmarks of Kubrick throughout – but it is still every inch a Spielberg film. And, for that matter, it’s one of Spielberg’s very best films.

The film opens with Hobby (William Hurt), sometime in the future, explaining the current state of Artificial Intelligence. Humans have created “Mechas” that look, feel and sound like human beings. They can also learn from past behavior, and imitate human emotions – but that is the key, they imitate human emotions, they do not feel them. Hobby wants to create a Mecha that can actually feel love. A member of the audience asks what is one of the key questions of the movie – if human beings can create something that feels genuine emotions – or is at least programmed to believe they feel them – what responsibility do humans have to that creation

Next we meet Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), a married couple with a child of their own, but one with an illness that cannot be cured, so is being held in a sort of hibernation until he can be cured. One day, Henry brings home David (Haley Joel Osment) – a test mecha, the first to be made as a child, and one who will behave like one – and if Monica chooses to, will imprint on her – so that he will love her exclusively – so much so that if they ever choose to get rid of David, he has to go back to the factory to be destroyed. She is hesitant at first – but then grows to love David, and imprints him. And then her real child recovers – causing conflict between David and her real child.

The movie has a definite three act structure – with the first being David’s introduction to the Swinton’s, and what happens as a result. The second act is what happens after Monica decides she can no longer keep David – but cannot bring herself to have him destroyed, so she basically lets him off in the middle of the forest to be free. David knows the story of Pinocchio, and has convinced himself that if he can find the Blue Fairy – and become a real boy – that he can go back home to Mommy again. He meets up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) – a “lover mecha” who is on the run from the law himself, and the two journey to try and find the Blue Fairy for David. There are two brilliant set pieces in this part of the movie – a so called Flesh Fair, where people gather to destroy Mechas, and the second is Rogue City – a kind of Las Vegas wonderland, which is perhaps the best single environment created in a Spielberg film to date. The third act, set 2,000 later, takes a very strange turn indeed – into an area that few filmmakers would even attempt.

The film is, undeniably, more sentimental than any film Stanley Kubrick ever made. Yet, it is not overly sentimental to me – it is that rare film that appeals equally to the emotions and the brains. Haley Joel Osment's performance is key in this – he creates David as a child who is real enough to be loved, but is still somewhat mechanical – there is something missing about him. This would be a hard performance for any actor – but for a child, it is simply remarkable. Jude Law gives one of his very best performances as Gigolo Joe as well – even more mechanical than David, one who doesn’t feel genuine emotion at all – just knows what his programming is.

But that also describes David too, doesn’t it? He never really feels any genuine emotions – he simply follows his programming, which requires him to feel emotions – or more accurately to think he feels emotions. But what is the difference between genuinely feeling somewhat, and just thinking you feel something. Is What Monica does to him kind – because she allows him to live, or cruel because David will never be able to love anyone other than Monica – so he will never be able to recover, the way a real person would.

As a technical achievement, A.I. is truly remarkable. It is a brilliantly directed film by Spielberg – who uses some Kubrickian tracking shots, and zooms, but generally stays away from Kubrick’s hallmarks visually. He creates a wonderful visual world – one enhanced by John Williams score. Even if you find the story lacking – and some do – I do not know how one could not love the visual world Spielberg has created here.

One thing that has always mystified me is the feeling that Spielberg somehow copped out at the end – and gave the film an underserved happy ending. This is a film that ends with all of humanity being wiped out, with the main character staying put, praying to an inanimate object for 2,000 years in vain to become a real boy, who is brought back – by advanced mechas (yes, they are mechas, and yes, Spielberg probably would have been wise to not make them look so much like a Spielberg alien) because they now do not have any memory of humanity – and David has those memories. They then get those memories from David – watch him operate his programming as it was meant to (by bringing back his mother, either in real life, or simple programming language) – and then basically let David expire – they do not need him anymore. I know the final scene – which gives David what he wants – is meant, at least in part, to draw tears from the audience (and succeeds in many cases) – but that doesn’t mean the end of A.I. is happy – it’s actually rather hard to think of a bleaker ending. It is certainly bleaker than the end of Kubrick’s 2001 – a film who Spielberg takes a few hints from in the ending here.

To bring it back to the beginning, Steven Spielberg did not make the film Stanley Kubrick could or would have made if he had lived long enough to make this film. He did something different – not necessarily better or worse (we will never know that) – but undeniably his own. There is apparently a movie going to be made at some point based on Kubrick’s Napoleon screenplay – another movie he never got to make. I am trying to reserve judgment – but this strikes me as a bad idea. There was only on Stanley Kubrick – no one else can be Stanley Kubrick. Steven Spielberg knew this, so when he took over a project from Kubrick – he made it is his own – and he made a masterpiece. It’s not Kubrick – but it is brilliant.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick (Offshoot): Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)
Directed by: Jan Harlan.
Featuring: Tom Cruise, Ken Adam, Margaret Adams, Brian Aldiss, Woody Allen, Steven Berkoff, Louis C. Blau, John Calley, Milena Canonero, Wendy Carlos, Arthur C. Clarke, Alex Cox, Allen Daviau, Ed Di Giulio, Keir Dullea, Shelley Duvall, Anthony Frewin, James B. Harris, Michael Herr, Mike Herrtage, Philip Hobbs, Irene Kane, Nicole Kidman, Barbara Kroner, Anya Kubrick, Christiane Kubrick, Katharina Kubrick, Paul Lashmar, György Ligeti, Steven Marcus, Paul Mazursky, Malcolm McDowell, Douglas Milsome, Matthew Modine, Jack Nicholson, Tony Palmer, Alan Parker, Sydney Pollack, Richard Schickel, Martin Scorsese, Terry Semel, Alexander Singer, Steven Spielberg, Sybil Taylor, Douglas Trumbull, Peter Ustinov, Marie Windsor, Alan Yentob, Jan Harlan, Leon Vitali.

I have owned a copy of Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures for a decade now – ever since I bought the Stanley Kubrick collection on DVD that included 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shit – but I have never watched it. I love Kubrick – of course – but I wasn’t sure if I needed to see a documentary directed by Jan Harlan – one of his closest friends and collaborators, which no doubt would simply be a glowing portrait of the man. Having seen the film now, that is pretty much how I would describe the movie – glowing. It interviews Kubrick’s family, a few friends, his collaborators, and there is hardly a negative word spoken about the man. It skims his early years, and doesn’t delve into his personal life too much, but instead focuses on the movies he made. This is fascinating in many respects – interviews with many of the actors who worked with him, and other collaborators, provide some insight into his process. Interviews with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Alex Cox provide insight into why directors love his films so much. Interviews with his family give limited insight into his life. It is all very interesting, but I think the documentary never really goes very deep into any of Kubrick’s work, or his life. It almost plays like a primer for people who know little or nothing about the man.

The film starts with Kubrick as a child – but doesn’t really dwell on that. A brief interview with his sister, and a few friends, and then we’re off to his career. About 15 minutes into the film and we’re already at 1956’s The Killing – having covered his childhood, his photographic work for Look Magazine, his three shorts, and first two films – Fear & Desire and Killer’s Kiss – in that time. From there, the movie takes its structure from Kubrick’s films – going chronologically from The Killing to Eyes Wide Shut, with stops along the way for each of his films.

The movie does provide some insight into how Kubrick worked, and how each of the films were received. There, a pattern emerges, with each film from Lolita to Eyes Wide Shut receiving tremendously mixed reviews and controversy, which over the years gives way to the consensus that the films are masterpieces. Obviously, many of Kubrick’s early collaborators are no longer around, so there are fewer interviews with the people who worked on the earlier films. Oddly, though, the film doesn’t have interviews with many of Kubrick’s collaborators who were still around when the film was made. There is no interview with Kirk Douglas – who Kubrick made two films with, clashing with on Spartacus – or Shelley Winters who worked on Lolita or Ryan O’Neal, who did Barry Lyndon nor any of the actors who worked on Full Metal Jacket except for Matthew Modine. We know that Kubrick could be difficult on set – and drove some of his actors crazy – but other than Shelley Duvall – who mostly acts like a good sport about what she went through on The Shining – no one has a bad word to say about the man.

In many ways, it feels like the film is pulling its punches. One of the most fascinating moments for me was Kubrick’s daughter reading one of his detailed instructions on how to separate two cats from fighting when he went away from a while – it is ridiculously detailed, and shows more than a little bit of obsessive compulsion disorder. A stronger film could delve into some of the darker aspects of Kubrick’s personality, and the way he worked, and still conclude that Kubrick was a genius – which is what he was. If he had to put people – himself included – to get what he needed, than that is what he had to do.

The film is still good – and of interest to Kubrick fans. But I was somewhat disappointed that the film didn’t delve into Kubrick a little deeper – not the man, who valued his privacy – but his films themselves. It seems like a missed opportunity that the film only has one interview with a film critic – Richard Schnickel – when it could have used much more (like Roger Ebert). Instead, the film is clearly made by a man who loved Kubrick – both as a person, and a filmmaker – and wants everyone else to love him too. There is value in that – but its limited, and it limits how good this film is.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Peter Craig and Danny Strong and Suzanne Collins based on the novel by Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Mahershala Ali (Boggs), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Paula Malcomson (Katniss' Mother), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Natalie Dormer (Cressida), Evan Ross (Messalla), Elden Henson (Pollux), Wes Chatham (Castor), Sarita Choudhury (Egeria), Stef Dawson (Annie Cresta), Patina Miller (Commander Paylor), Robert Knepper (Antonius).

One of the most frustrating recent trends in recent movies is the splitting of the final installments of popular series into two movies instead of one. I know the filmmakers all go on about how it’s for “artistic” reasons, and how the stories are just too big to be contained in a single movie – but I don’t know anyone who actually believes that lie, and well they shouldn’t – because it is in fact a lie. It’s all about money. Did anyone really need two installments Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or even the final Harry Potter movies – which were actually good. The good news about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I is that it is more Harry Potter than Twilight – and for the most part is a satisfying movie on its own terms. And while I don’t buy the argument that Mockingjay – which as a novel was the same length as Catching Fire, which worked just fine as one movie – needed to be two movies, the good news is that many of the scenes that may have been cut if it was one movie are the best in the movie. This is a film where the quieter scenes are far and away the best – the bigger moments, where people make grand speeches feel false, phony and forced (even when they’re not supposed to) – but the quieter moments get to something that movies of this size rarely attempt. Yes, this is a movie that draws everything out too long – and repeats itself too often – but when it works, it works quite well.

Following the events of the last two films – where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has had to go through the same process twice – entering the world of the Games, where she is forced to kill fellow teenagers and children or be killed herself. For two films, she has essentially been a pawn of the capital – who uses her, and the fellow “tributes” to keep law and order. At the end of Catching Fire, she is rescue by the rebels, who want to overthrow the Capital – a plan that many others were in on, but she was not. When the film opens, Katniss is now in District 13, the rebel base, but some of her fellow tributes – most notably Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were left behind. The rebels want to use Katniss as a pawn, just like the Capital did, but this time for the opposite cause. But Katniss is essentially suffering from PSTD, and doesn’t know if she can handle anything – least of which being used in propaganda pieces. But it may just be the only way to save Peeta – and she hates the Capital enough that she agrees to go alone with it.

The best scenes in the movie are the quietest – the ones that show just how powerless Katniss really is. Lawrence is excellent in the lead role – at least at those quieter moments – where she is just trying to hold herself, her family and her friends together. There are moments when she is forced to give speeches to be used for propaganda purposes – and those moments don’t work quite as well. Ironically, Lawrence’s more convincing playing Katniss as unconvincing in the staged propaganda pieces, than she is at playing Katniss as convincing, when she is delivering the real speeches that inspire everyone.

The two best performances in the movie however belong not to Lawrence – but supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as Plutarch, who knows the Capital better than anyone else in the rebel forces, and wants to use their own game against him. Julianne Moore is equally great as President Koin, the leader of the rebels, who is idealistic, but has no idea how to win the hearts and minds of the rebels.

There are problems with Mockingjay Part I. For one, it feels like it’s trying to shoehorn in every character that previously appeared in the movies, even if they have little or nothing to do (the worse examples of this are Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie). For another, some of the performance are quite simply terrible (Liam Hemsworth, I’m looking at you). For another, the movie simply repeats itself too often – two different emotional, heavy handed and long sequences in District 12 basically say the same thing twice.
But when the film works, it works amazingly well. The thing that I have appreciated about The Hunger Games – the books and now the movies – is how it makes Katniss both a strong character, but an ultimately powerless one. No matter what she does, where she goes, she has no real power over anything that she does. She is merely a pawn in the game being played by others. She can rage against it all she wants, but she cannot change it.

Movie Review: To Be Takei

To Be Takei
Directed by: Jennifer M. Kroot.

George Takei is an icon to many because of his role as Sulu on the original Star Trek series – and the movies that ran for years after. But Takei is more than simply Sulu – he was a Japanese American actor in an era where the only roles for them were stereotypes, most of them offensive, who still managed to conduct himself with dignity in his roles. He is a survivor of one of the most shameful chapters in American history – when he, and all other Japanese Americans, were rounded up and placed in internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor – and while he has never forgotten that experience, it hasn’t stopped him for loving America. And in the last decade, he has become an outspoken proponent for marriage equality – after coming of the closet that he stayed in for decades in order to protect his career. He has faced so much negativity in his life that the fact that he seems so positive, so upbeat, so willing to laugh, to poke fun of himself and his image, is miraculous.

The documentary To Be Takei, directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, looks at Takei’s life and covers the major bases in it. It is entertaining, because Takei is entertaining – always an engaging subject for the camera. It’s also entertaining because Takei’s husband, Brad, seems like his complete opposite – and yet they fit together perfectly. They bicker and argue just like any other old, married couple – because after more than 25 years together, that’s just what they are. The movie looks at his legacy – both onscreen and off – and what he has meant to future generations of Asian actors, who looked to him as one of the only role models they had growing up, and the gay community he is so passionately involved in now. And it constantly refers back to his time in the Japanese internment camp – something that has profoundly shaped his life.

To Be Takei falls into the same trap that many documentaries that focus on one celebrity do – that it is so enamored with its subject that it doesn’t really dig deep enough into who that celebrity is. There are some tougher questions that could have been asked of Takei that the documentary doesn’t really do (for instance – did he ever consider not accepting the award for the Japanese emperor when they denied his husband’s access to the ceremony?). The movie was made with Takei’s full co-operation, of course, and becomes more of what Takei wants it to be – and how he wants to be portrayed –than anything else.

This is less of a problem with Takei than it is for many other celebrities, because Takei really does appear to be a truly great person – one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and address his past – and even to criticize it (he speaks with regret about doing a couple of Jerry Lewis movies early in his career, where he played offensive stereotypes. Strangely though, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about John Wayne – and his own role in Wayne’s offensive The Green Berets (and the movie doesn’t press him too hard). The movie addresses the tension between Takei and co-star William Shatner – but doesn’t press either of them too hard on it.

Overall, To Be Takei is an entertaining documentary about an icon – both as an icon and as a person. Yes, I wish it had of pressed further. It isn’t a great doc, like 20,000 Days on Earth about Nick Cave or Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me were earlier this year. But it’s a fun one – and I’m not going to complain too much about that.

Movie Review: Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas
Directed by: Joe Swanberg.
Written by: Joe Swanberg.
Starring: Anna Kendrick (Jenny), Melanie Lynskey (Kelly), Mark Webber (Kevin), Lena Dunham (Carson), Joe Swanberg (Jeff).

The films of Joe Swanberg all seem to be of a piece –he rejects anything resembling a plot or resolution, and seems to want nothing more than to hang out with his characters for extended, seemingly improvised scenes. Some of his films have been insufferable – the acting terrible, the style, which is basically a complete lack of style, annoying and the whole project seeming like little more than navel gazing. His last two (or at least the last two I’ve seen – he is a strangely prolific director) have shown a little more promise, a little more intelligence – or at the very least acknowledges that his hipster characters can be completely and totally insufferable. Like Drinking Buddies, last year’s film in which best friends Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde do not know they are perfect for each other, Happy Christmas is a movie that takes a more seemingly mainstream genre and gives it a Swanberg-twist. In this case, it’s the coming home comedy-drama – where Jenny (Anna Kendrick), comes to live with her brother Jeff (Swanberg himself) and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) – who are new parents. Jenny, younger, more free spirited, most also more irresponsible, turns their life’s upside down – and they everyone grows a little bit. This probably sounds like a horrible, family Christmas comedy – and yes, in different hands, that is perhaps what it would be. But Swanberg twists it enough to make it an interesting sit – not a particularly good one, but an interesting one.

At first, Jenny seems to be a completely normal, young 20-something, and her brother and his wife seem like a perfect happy, 30-something couple with kids. But early in the film, Jenny goes to party with her friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), and gets so drunk she passes out in the closet – prompting Carson to have to call Jeff to come pick Jenny up. It isn’t the last time Jenny will get black out drunk in the film –though oddly (and somewhat refreshingly), no one ever uses the word alcoholic – although that is clearly what Jenny is. She also smokes a lot of pot – and when she meets Kevin (Mark Webber), a friend and of Jeff and Kelly, and their son’s part-time babysitter (and part-time pot dealer) – the pair do a slow dance of seduction – with Jenny being the more aggressive of the two (also, somewhat refreshing). Meanwhile, even though Kelly initially doesn’t think much of Jenny, she eventually gets inspired by her – Kelly, who is a novelist, needs a good kick in the pants to get going again after the birth of her son – and Jenny gives her that. And also an idea – why not just churn out one of those “mommy sex” books, and make a boatload of money.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Swanberg's more recent films and his earlier work is the quality of the acting. He was one of the first to recognize the brilliance of Greta Gerwig – but Gerwig often outshined everyone else in the movies. Now, with a slightly higher profile, he can hire better actors. Kendrick, so naturally sweet and likable, is well cast as Jenny – who loses and regains our sympathy more than once during the course of the movie. Lynskey is also very good as the put upon mother, who simply wants a little bit of freedom for herself. The best scenes in the movie are between these two – or these two alongside Dunham’s Carson, just spitballing ideas for the novel, or shooting the shit – with the two younger women completely unaware of how ridiculous they sound (ah – the arrogance of youth). I did appreciate the fact that Swanberg doesn’t make Jeff into some sort of selfish asshole – unlike many movie dads and husbands, he actually wants to spend time with his son, doesn’t complain about it, and also does what he can to give Kelly time to herself. Yes, that’s normal husband behavior (or should be) – but in this sort of movie (basically a big screen sitcom), that practically qualifies Jeff for sainthood.
I liked some of the ideas behind Happy Christmas – and liked how Swanberg refused to give into easy clichés. He takes a well-worn genre, and twists it a little. The problem is that by itself, that just isn’t enough. The complete lack of structure in the film is charming for a while, but slowly wears out its welcome (and this is only an 82 minute film). Swanberg has found a slightly different way to tell the same stories Hollywood always does, but minus the clichés. The problem is, while he doesn’t do the same things in the story that Hollywood would be – his substitute is just as inane and boring. Swanberg already has 26 directing credits in just over a decade (I told you, he was strangely prolific) – and I think he’s finally showing real signs of there being an interesting filmmaker in there, somewhere. He hasn’t quite showed himself yet – but he’s getting closer.

Movie Review: Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower
Directed by: Andrew Rossi.
Written by: Andrew Rossi.

How much is a University education worth – and what exactly are you paying for when you pay them? Over the past few decades, tuition has skyrocketed, as state governments have cut the funding that universities received – and they need to make up that money somewhere, and tuition is the only place left. The universities are in fierce competition for students, so they end up spending a lot of that money on ways to entice students to come to their universities – recreation centers, upscale student housing, etc. In addition, many universities don’t seem to be challenging their students academically, but rather focus on their life. As a results, students are paying more and more money to for their university education, and get less and less value for that money – they end up going in massive amounts of student debt, that compound exponentially over time as more of them have trouble finding a job than ever before.

The new documentary Ivory Tower asks a lot of questions about the value of a University education, points out many of the problems with how it stands now, but never really attempts to answer any of those questions. It presents what it sees as both sides of the question – as well as some alternatives to a higher education, and the positives and negatives inherent in them as well. It spends a lot of time on the fight at Cooper Union – a small university in New York City that was supposed to remain free for students forever, thanks to an endowment by its founder, but because of some questionable decisions made by its board and President in regards to risky investments, now has to start charging tuition. This angers current students – even if they themselves will not have to pay – and they organize a sit-in in the University President’s office – a President with a salary nearly equal to that of the President of Harvard, despite the fact that Cooper Union is a tiny fraction of its size.

Ivory Tower is a well-made a documentary – in the typical talking heads style, by Andrew Rossi – whose last film was also about a venerable institution in trouble in a changing world – the New York Times. Like that film, Ivory Tower isn’t as interested in answers as it is in asking questions. This makes the film both fascinating and frustrating. Watching the film, you are almost left with the sense that no matter what you do – whether you go to university or not – you’re screwed.

But the questions the movie asks are worth asking – and are asked all too infrequently in our society. The system is setup to encourage people to go to university – and that is a worthy goal for all – but the system is also setup for the universities to simply be money generating businesses – with no real incentive to provide the type of education people expect. This doesn’t mean that higher education is worthless – but it does mean it needs to be re-examined – at least on some levels. Ivory Tower will hopefully spark some conversations about what it all means.

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael inspired by the novel by Arthur Schnitzler.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Dr. William Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), Marie Richardson (Marion), Rade Serbedzija (Milich), Todd Field (Nick Nightingale), Vinessa Shaw (Domino), Sky du Mont (Sandor Szavost), Fay Masterson (Sally), Leelee Sobieski (Milich's Daughter), Thomas Gibson (Carl), Madison Eginton (Helena Harford), Julienne Davis (Mandy), Gary Goba (Naval Officer), Alan Cumming (Desk Clerk), Leon Vitali (Red Cloak).

Eyes Wide Shut is the only Kubrick film I was old enough to see – and really to be aware of – when it first came out. Of course, Kubrick died shortly after finishing the film, which only fed the anticipation of the movie. There were all sorts of crazy rumors surrounding the film – by the lead press you would almost assume that Kubrick had pretty much made a porno with perhaps the most famous couple in Hollywood at the time – Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Then people actually saw the film – and I think the reaction was more confusion than anything else. Some of the reviews were great – some were horrible – but I think many people didn’t quite know what to make the film on the first viewing. As the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (which I will review next) makes clear, this was pretty much par for the course for a Kubrick film – pretty much everyone since Lolita had the same reaction, before slowly the opinion on the film started to evolve over the years – most being considered masterpieces many. I’m not sure Eyes Wide Shut has quite undergone that transformation among many as of yet – but I do not doubt that eventually it will get there. I saw the film three, perhaps four times in theaters – and quite a few times on VHS and DVD over the next few years – but it’s probably been six or seven years since I had a look at the film. I loved it each time I saw it – but I’m not sure I could explain it at the time. This is a mysterious film in many ways – the Kubrick film it most reminds me of is, strangely, The Shining – as both films are rather ambiguous, could lead to multiple interpretations, and have parts that arguably take place only in the head of the main character. The film has a dreamlike quality to it – something I find myself admiring more and more in films as the years go by. Watching it this time – a little older, a little closer in terms of age to the main characters, and closer to the spot they are in life (married, kids) – I think I loved it even more this time than ever before. It truly is the final masterpiece of Kubrick’s career.

Bill Harford (Cruise) is a character who in some ways reminded me of Barry Lyndon – both men are passive in many ways, and have things happen to them. The difference is that Barry is a character who tries desperately to fit in – and destroys himself attempting to do something he cannot, and Bill is a man who when the film opens thinks he has everything figured out – the beautiful wife, the pretty young daughter, the thriving medical practice, the right friends – but is thrown for a loop when his wife, Alice (Kidman) tells him something that he didn’t imagine was possible. When we first meet them, they are preparing to go to a party held by Victor (Sydney Pollack) – a rich patient and friend of Bill’s. At the party, the pair separate – Kidman gets drunk and flirts with an older Hungarian man, leading him on a little bit, playing with him before she backs off. Bill flirts with two beautiful, younger models – before he’s called away to help Victor – who has trouble with a younger woman himself – one who has OD’ed in his bathroom.

It is these two flirtations – the one between Alice and the older man, and Bill and the models – who set the rest of the film in motion. Alice wants to talk about it – and Bill says something rather stupid things – about how men talk to beautiful women because they want to sleep with them, but sex is something different for women – it’s more about safety and security – commitment if you will. This is when Alice throws Bill for a loop – confessing a fantasy she had the previous year when she saw a Naval Officer at the hotel they were staying at – where she said that she was ready to throw everything away if only he had wanted her – even if it was only for one night. An argument ensures – but before it can really get going, Bill is called away – a patient of his has died, and he has to go to his apartment.

So Bill heads off into the New York night, with visions of his wife and the Naval Officer having sex (which they never did) in his head. It’s somewhere around here, that I think the movie starts to segue between fantasy and reality. It really happens after Bill arrives at the apartment of the dead man, and talks to his daughter – who he barely knows – in the same room as the body. At first, their conversation is rather mundane – the type of small talk you expect between two people who don’t know each other well, but are forced to exchange pleasantries for a few minutes. And then things take a change – when the woman, Marion (Marie Richardson) tells Bill about her fiancé Carl (Thomas Gibson) – and then breaks down in tears, telling Bill she cannot marry Carl, and move to Michigan – because she is in love with Bill – and even if they cannot be together, she needs to be near him.

This conversation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Would this really be the time Marion would confess her love to Bill – with the body of dead father in the same room? But what I noticed this time through, which had not registered before, is that Marion looks a little like Kidman – she wears her hair in much the same way. (For that matter, Carl, when we meet him later in that scene, is almost a clone of Bill – same haircut, same manner). What Marion says is much like what Alice had said about the naval officer – that she would ruin her life for one night with him.

Marion is the first, but is hardly the last, person who will respond to Cruise sexually almost immediately. From that point on, pretty much every interaction Cruise has for the rest of the night is sexual. The frat boys who he meets on the street, and accuse him of being a “fag”, the prostitute Domino (Vinessa Shaw), who he meets, and goes to her apartment – although nothing happens, and their interaction is much more tender, almost sweet, than we expect. The costume shop he visits – where the look the daughter (Leelee Sobieski) gives him is reminiscent of Lolita. Eventually, Bill makes his way to a bar where his friend Nick (Todd Field) –who he met for the first time in years at Victor’s party – who tells him about the wild party he has been hired to play at later than night. It is this party – which Bill gets the details from Nick – which sets up the most infamous scene in the film.

Cruise arrives – wearing a costume, like Nick told him to – at a huge mansion out somewhere in the country. He is escorted in, and witnesses a strange ritual – everyone is wearing masks, but the women there are wearing pretty much only masks. A ritual takes place – a woman leaves the circle a picks up Bill – and immediately tells him he has to leave – he doesn’t belong there, and he will be found out. Bill doesn’t listen – and walks through the house during the orgy. We can now, finally, see the version Kubrick intended – unedited, and more graphic, but hardly pornographic. The version we saw in theaters in 1999 had objects or people digitally added to cover some of the more graphic thrusting (again, it is hardly graphic – but more graphic than the MPAA liked presumably). The sex we see is hardly erotic – it is mechanical and emotionless – made more so by the fact that everyone is wearing masks, so we cannot see any faces and Kubrick uses music to mask all the sounds of sex. Bill is, of course, found out – and thrown out, but only after the woman who picked him up agrees to sacrifice herself for him – and is warned not to tell anyone, anything about what he saw – and not to try and figure out anything about it.

This is about the first half – a little more, but not much – of the film. The rest of the film is Bill not taking the advice he was given when he was thrown out of the orgy, and trying to figure out what happened anyway – something made harder by the fact that Nick has disappeared, and the body of a woman, who he thinks may have been the one who saved her, was found in a hotel – dead of an apparent drug overdose.

The film operates more on dream logic than anything else. Some complained that Kubrick’s New York doesn’t resemble the real New York – the streets are different, too deserted – which is partly explained by the fact that Kubrick, of course, didn’t actually shoot the film in New York – but in London. To me, this is beside the point. This isn’t New York after all – but the New York in the dream world of the film. I’ve always thought that only part of the film actually happens, and part of it is only in the mind – or the dreams (which is the same thing, really) – of Bill. But Kubrick doesn’t do anything to let the audience know what is what – much like he did in The Shining. The film eventually does explain everything – as Victor gives Bill an explanation – but that seems a little too convenient – too pat, too neat. He gives the explanation the audience is looking for – but doesn’t necessarily wrap things up as neatly as most movies would.

What the film is ultimately about is commitment, fidelity and marriage. This is a movie about a married couple, one of whom thought he had a perfect marriage, the other who knew the truth – who still find a way, in the end, to stay together. To Kubrick, commitment and fidelity is a choice – and Bill’s journey is to see what else could be out there should he stray from his marriage. It is a scary world – and so he retreats back into the comfort of his marriage. In a way, he has become the typical “woman” he described to Alice earlier in the film.

The performances in the movie are excellent. Cruise has never been this passive in a movie before – he’s plays Bill as a man who is constantly in over his head, who is at the mercy of the other characters who are the ones who really drive the plot. He heads out into New York twice – once in the night, and once in the day, and the two are different, yet equally disturbing to him. Kidman, although her role is far smaller than Cruise’s – is even better. She really drives the plot – from her flirting, to her confrontation with Cruise where she admits her desires, to the final scene – which is brilliantly played by Kidman, with one of the best final lines (really, a word) in cinema history.

Eyes Wide Shut, like all of Kubrick’s best films is still in many ways a mystery to me. Kubrick’s intentions are always somewhat mysterious – and perhaps never more so than here. But each time I watch the film, the better I think it gets – the more insightful it is into the realities of marriage. Bill and Alice may not have a healthy marriage at the beginning – but they may well have one by the end. In many ways, Eyes Wide Shut is the most hopeful film of Kubrick’s career. By the end, Bill has finally realized what his marriage really is – and only then can he, and Alice, really move forward.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Michael Herr & Gustav Hasford based on the novel by Hasford.
Starring: Matthew Modine (Pvt. J.T. 'Joker' Davis), Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), Vincent D'Onofrio (Pvt. Leonard 'Gomer Pyle' Lawrence), R. Lee Ermey (Gny. Sgt. Hartman), Dorian Harewood (Eightball), Kevyn Major Howard (Rafterman), Arliss Howard (Pvt. Cowboy), Ed O'Ross (Lt. Touchdown), John Terry (Lt. Lockhart), Kieron Jecchinis (Crazy Earl), Kirk Taylor (Payback).

The first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket is as good as anything Stanley Kubrick has ever made – which means it’s as good as just about any film you can name. The problem with the film is that it is 116 minutes long – and the final 70 minutes of the film is nowhere near as strong as those first 45 minutes. This isn’t to say that those final 70 minutes are bad – they aren’t, they are actually quite good. But they cannot help but pale in comparison to where the film started. Whenever I think of the film, I think of R. Lee Ermey's Drill Sergeant and Vincent D'Onofrio's Private Pyle – and little else. Although I’ve seen the film numerous times, the final 70 minutes always fairly quickly fade from my memory after the film is over – which is not something I can say about just about any other Kubrick film. Full Metal Jacket is half masterpiece, and half very good war film. Well, that’s still better than most films.

The first 45 minutes on the film take place on Paris Island, where the Marine Corps run their basic training. The film opens with a montage of the various recruits all getting identical buzz cuts – and the point of the film becomes clear in those few moments – the Marines do not want individuals, they want the same person over and over again. They want killing machines. The film then moves to Ermey's Drill Sergeant walking around the barracks and berating the new recruits, with colorful, often hilarious insults. He informs the new recruits that he will break them down and turn them into Marines, not the bags of shit they currently are. He gives many of the recruit’s catchy nicknames – Joker for the recruit (Matthew Modine) who does a John Wayne impression during that opening tirade, and Gomer Pyle for the recruit (D'Onofrio) who cannot stop himself from smiling at Ermey's insults. He is overweight, and out of shape, and the Drill Sergeant sets his sights on him right away – he will be singled out from the most punishment because he needs the most work.

There is a point about 30 minutes into the movie that represents a turning point for Pyle – after which, he`ll go from the somewhat sweet, dimwitted man into something far more disturbing. When he looks at the camera later in this segment, he looks much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining – and he talks not unlike HAL 9000 from 2001 – cold, methodical and emotionless. The film ends this segment in violence – showing how the Marine Corps did precisely what they wanted with Pyle – turn him into a killing machine.

The last 70 minutes follows Joker, who works for the magazine Stars and Stripes, through the Vietnam war. He is told by his superior that they are interested in only two stories – those about winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, or about winning the war itself – two things the rest of the movie make clear are not actually happening. The film follows Joker as he goes to the front, and climaxes in an incredibly tense standoff with a Vietcong Sniper.

That first 45 minutes is brilliant – darkly hilarious, surreal, disturbing and extremely well-acted by Ermey and D'Onofrio. Throughout his career, Kubrick would return to the idea of the dehumanizing aspect of violence in general, and war in particular. This is his theme in Full Metal Jacket – and by the end of those opening 45 minutes, it has firmly established that in a brilliant way. Like Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. We will see horrific acts of violence in Full Metal Jacket – but Kubrick sees this more as a product of the war, than the personal responsibility of the people in general. Like D'Onofrio by the end of that first segment, almost all of the grunts who have seen violence in the second part talk in cold, methodical ways – almost like machines, not like people. If the first half of the movie is about the gradual dehumanization of Pyle, the second half does something similar for Joker – it takes him longer to get there, but he still gets there.

The second half of the movie is brilliantly well made in many ways – it has some great Steadicam shots following the men on patrol, and disturbing scenes like when it shows a Marine in a helicopter shooting everyone below them, for no real reason. The final confrontation with the sniper is masterfully constructed, and incredibly intense.

And yet, it feels like something is lacking in that segment. This is supposed to be Vietnam, but was shot in England – because Kubrick lived there, and didn’t want to get on a boat or a plane. He shipped in palm trees to try and make England look more like Vietnam – but it doesn’t quite work. It all feels a little phoney and false – especially when compared to movies like Platoon (1986) or Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Deer Hunter (1978). And worse than that, it feels slightly unnecessary – I don’t think Kubrick adds much to his overall point that he hadn’t established, and better, in the first 45 minutes.

The biggest problem with that last 70 minutes of the film is not really anything in it – it is well acted, directed and written, even if does feel a little fake at times. The biggest problem is simply that is has the misfortune of following the brilliant 45 minutes that opened the film. That part is as good as anything you will see. The 70 minutes that follow is fine – but cannot help but be hurt by following something brilliant.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick (Offshoot): Room 237 (2012)

Room 237 (2012)
Directed by: Rodney Ascher.
Featuring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner.

The five people who speak during Rodney Ascher's brilliant, hilarious documentary Room 237 are people who cannot see the forest for the trees. During the course of the film, they will give their various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining – arguing that the film isn’t really about what it seems to be about. To one, it is about the Holocaust. To another, it’s about the Genocide of the Native Americans. To another, its Kubrick’s confession for faking the moon landing footage (he wants everyone to know that he does believe that Apollo 11 actually did land on the moon – it was just the footage that was faked – he isn’t crazy or anything). The other two aren’t nearly as clear about their interpretations – but they simply look very deeply, and make a lot out of what they think they have discovered in the film.

In a way, Room 237 is a film about film criticism – film critic’s job is to analyze films, of course, and to find the meaning of the film, and the subtext in them. But what the five people in Room 237 do is far beyond what film critics do. They barely even deal with the surface of the film – things like plot, or characters, or performances or music, or shot selection, or anything else that actually make up the whole of the film. To them, everything is The Shining is just a stand in for some larger meaning that Kubrick was trying to get viewers to notice. A missing chair is not a simple continuity error – but Kubrick playing with genre conventions to get the audience to look deeper. Similarly, a missing sticker of Dopey is not a continuity error – but a sign from Kubrick that Danny is no longer a dope. A German typewriter is a symbol of the Holocaust, because the Germans went about the elimination of the Jews in a bureaucratic way. A can of Calamut baking powder is a symbol of Native Americans – and when later in the film, more than one is behind Nicholson’s head, in a disorganized way, that’s a symbol of broken treaties with the Native Americans. Kubrick changed the room number from Stephen Kings novel not because the hotel it was based on requested it (like Kubrick said) but because the moon is 237,000 miles from earth. And perhaps my favorite, one dissolve near the end of the film momentarily gives Nicholson a Hitler mustache.

The argument that all of them make at one point or another is that since we all know Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist, than everything in the film had to be put there on purpose – and all of it must mean something. But continuity errors happen on nearly every film – even on those made by perfectionists. And when someone points out that during the infamous Steadicam shots of Danny on his big wheel, that you can see, in the corners, parts of rooms that shouldn’t be there, that is most likely just the reality of shooting on a set, and not a real location.

There is also a lot of seeing only what the viewers want to see to further their point in the film. Is it a coincidence that the man who specializes in German history, particularly Nazi history, sees the film as about the Holocaust? Or that the man who admits he was thinking a lot about genocide and the Native Americans see The Shining as about that. Or the man, who was already convinced Kubrick faked the moon landing, sees this as his confession. All of them take only what they want in the movie, and discard the rest.

None of this is to say that there are not deeper meanings in The Shining – or in any film for that matter. Often, directors have used genre films to comment on something larger than the surface level of the plot. But the amount of detail that these people look at in The Shining crosses the line between deep analysis into the pathological and insane. The connections they make are only in their mind – and not in the film itself.

None of this means that Room 237 isn’t a great film – it is a great film. But it’s not great in the way the five subjects of the film would probably want it to be. They didn’t succeed in convincing me of anything during the course of the movie other than the fact that they are somewhat insane. Room 237 is, in many ways, about the danger of looking too closely – so closely that you no longer even see the object you are looking at, and instead see things that are not there. And it’s also about the culture we live in today – where ambiguity is something to be questioned, where art is a puzzle simply to be solved. Not every movie is like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense – where there is a moment where everything snaps into place. Sometimes, there are no answers. But there are people who do not want to see things that way – they want David Chase to tell them explicitly if Tony Soprano is alive or dead at the end of the show. They want David Lynch to explain all the mysteries of Twin Peaks or Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive.

The film is also incredibly entertaining – and at times downright hilarious. Ascher never interjects in the film, but instead just allows his subjects to talk and talk, while showing us in detail the scenes from the movie they are talking about. Sometimes, you definitely notice that what they are saying is correct – not their interpretation per se, but what is actually on screen. And sometimes, what they are saying are simply not there – no matter how closely Ascher looks for it.

The film is wonderful – and Ascher definitely picked the right film to make this documentary about. He could have done it with any number of films, but The Shining is one of those films that simply defies expectations – and contains questions that simply have no answers – at least not in the film itself. Kubrick did this intentionally – he wanted there to be different interpretations of his film. But I cannot help but think that he may well view these five as crazy as I did. Sometimes a missing chair is just a missing chair.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson based on the novel by Stephen King.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Dick Hallorann), Barry Nelson (Stuart Ullman), Philip Stone (Delbert Grady), Joe Turkel (Lloyd the Bartender), Anne Jackson (Doctor), Tony Burton (Larry Durkin), Lia Beldam (Young Woman in Bath), Billie Gibson (Old Woman in Bath), Barry Dennen (Bill Watson).

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is an easy movie to get lost in (I do a review of the great documentary Room 237 next, about five such people) as the film contains so many traps and misdirections that every time you watch it, the film seems to change and become something different. I am not sure how many times I’ve seen the film – yet every time I watch it, it seems like a completely different film from the one that I had in my mind. It is a film that defies easy interpretation – and every time I think I have it figured out, it slips through my fingers again. I do not see this as a flaw in the film – but one of its greatest strengths. The film may confuse, confound and infuriate those who want to be taken by the hand by the filmmaker and walked through the film – but for those of us who love ambiguity in our films, The Shining is one of the greatest ever made. It’s interesting that Kubrick made this film following Barry Lyndon – that film makes us watch it precisely the way Kubrick wants us to, and see things precisely the way he does. The Shining is almost the complete opposite.

The story is well known to all – Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker for the historic Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado, where from November until May he’ll be cut off from the rest of the world. He brings along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) – who has the “shine”, basically physic powers. At some point during the winter, Jack starts to go insane, and will eventually try and murder his family.

That is about all I can say with absolute certainty about the film. There are ghosts in the film – or perhaps not. Danny has visions about the violence in the hotel’s past – but can we trust those visions? Torrance talks to various ghosts – like Lloyd the Bartender, and Grady, the former caretaker who murdered his family – but are they really there, or are they simply a product of his insanity? Or does Danny plant those visions? When Torrance goes into Room 237, and has a vision of a beautiful, young woman in the bathtub – who he starts making out with, only to have her change into the rotting corpse of an older woman, what exactly does that mean? Does that happen – are the women ghosts – or is it in his mind? Or, is this just one of Danny’s visions – as Kubrick cuts back and forth between Jack in that room, and Danny transmitting the vision to Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), the hotel’s friendly chef, in an attempt to get him to come back to the hotel and save him and his mother. Is Danny just making it up – Jack certainly doesn’t share this vision with Wendy in the scene right after it, nor does he even seem upset, although during that scene in that room he is horrified. Jack has already started going insane before we see him interacting with any of the “ghosts” in the hotel – he has already embarked on his “writing project”, has already snapped at Wendy for interrupting him, already had his disturbing meeting with Danny, where Danny asks if Jack would ever hurt them, and comes away far from reassured, and we have already seen him staring, with a disturbed look on his face, at his family. Has Kubrick, an atheist, really made a ghost story – which would imply there is an afterlife, or has he made a film about insanity – so that all the ghosts and visions are just in the minds of his characters? But then, if they are not ghosts who can manipulate reality, how does Jack get out of that room near the end of the movie. And what does that final shot in the movie mean. See what I mean – it’s easy to get lost down numerous rabbit holes while watching The Shining. And every time I watch the film, I get a different impression of what really is going on, and what it all means. The closer I look, the farther I get away from knowing the answers – probably because Kubrick has designed the film to have no definitive answers in the first place.

There are more questions in The Shining that go unanswered in the film – and I would argue are unanswerable given what is in the movie itself. This is by design. At nearly two and half hours, The Shining is one of the longest horror films ever made – most filmmakers limit their horror films to 90 minutes, because it’s nearly impossible to maintain the proper sense of terror for that long. But Kubrick does just that in The Shining – in part because of those unanswerable questions. Even in the somewhat normal opening scenes in the film, something is clearly not right with Jack, or the hotel. And the movie gradually ratchets up the tension throughout, until one of the best horror movie climaxes of all time – that even though I have seen the film countless times, never ceases to scare me half to death.

The film is a technical marvel from the start – with its opening, long helicopter shot under the opening credits. The most famous shots in the movie are undoubtedly the long Steadicam shots of Danny riding his big wheel around the hotel, and discovering things he probably shouldn’t. In a documentary on the DVD about the film, many imply that Kubrick did these shots simply because he could – they represented a technical challenge, and Kubrick never shied away from that. Perhaps that’s true – but like the rest of the film, these shots only heighten the terror in the movie.

Stephen King, who wrote the original novel, and hated Kubrick’s film, argued against Jack Nicholson because he would immediately seem unhinged, instead of gradually getting there. He was right in a way – there is something off about Nicholson from the start – but that is more keeping in line with Kubrick’s vision of the story than Kings. This is not Stephen Kings The Shining – as Kubrick took what he wanted from the novel, and threw the rest away, with many of the most iconic touches being his own, and not Kings. I understand why King would not be thrilled with a director doing that to a novel he felt was extremely personal – but that doesn’t mean the rest of us cannot be thrilled with what Kubrick did.

And Nicholson’s performance is wonderful throughout – one of the most disturbing, and altogether terrifying portraits of insanity every put on film. Nicholson, who is often accused of playing the same character every time out – the charming rogue, full of the same mannerisms – starts at that place in The Shining, and then goes further than he ever has before. Shelley Duvall, who apparently had a miserable time in the movie, and butted heads with Kubrick throughout, nevertheless gives a great performance as a terrified woman – bringing a mundane normalcy to her early scenes, and truly visceral terror near the end. Kubrick was hard on her – but he got what he needed.

The Shining is one of the greatest horror films ever made. It doesn’t rely on blood and guts, and doesn’t rely on the type of cheap scares that populate most horror movies. Kubrick doesn’t shoot it like a normal horror movie either – but favors deep focus, and wide shots, instead of simple darkness and close-ups. It is a master class is horror filmmaking – one that 34 years later has not really been matched.