Archive for July 2011


July 26, 2011

Note: The following was written shortly after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, and is reprinted here in honor of what would have been his 83rd birthday.

Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, to be released posthumously on July 16, will be Eyes Wide Shut, which many people otherwise know as the new Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman vehicle. Had the notoriously exacting director finished it in time? Yes. According to industry reports, Kubrick’s cut of the film was screened on March 2 for Warner Bros. executives, then shipped back to Kubrick in England; on March 7, he was dead. I can imagine him holding out just long enough to receive the reels back into his waiting hands; I can further imagine Kubrick, after two tortuous years of tinkering, recasting and reshooting, finally letting go of his movie and his life in the same breath. Not quite a Kubrickian notion (the image owes more to Welles), but a comforting one to us nonetheless.

I will spare you the conceit of Kubrick on his deathbed, pointing at the monolith and ascending to the heavens, born again as the star child. Few deaths in his films were so poetic; people tended to die abruptly, violently, even comically, but seldom romantically. “I can hack it,” sputters the dying Arliss Howard in Full Metal Jacket, spitting bile from a sucking chest wound. Those are his last words — nothing profound, just the fear of death disguised as unfounded optimism. For Kubrick, death was a sick joke; life was a sick joke. The protagonists of his films over the last 30 years have all been detached in some way, removed from all suffering except their own — a direct line connects the blank astronauts in 2001 to the blank soldiers in Full Metal Jacket, and both Dave Bowman and Private Joker perform what can only be called mercy killings. Death: the big switch-off, the ultimate trigger-pull. Kubrick himself was something of a private joker: Only the initiated, the sardonic like-minded, could really dig his midnight-black view of humanity — though underneath it beat a true humanistic heart, the sensibility of a man who felt we could be better. His job wasn’t to provide answers or suggestions as to how we could be better; he just illuminated the areas in which we have a lot of work cut out for us as a species. As saddened as I am by Kubrick’s passing, to get sentimental about him now would be to violate the lessons of his work, which will survive all of us.

The main program on Kubrick’s hard drive was dehumanization — men devolving into beasts or being turned into cold hard machines (which is another kind of devolution). In Kubrick, we are given intellect and will, only to use it to dominate and control others, to indulge in some ultraviolence or the old in-out in-out. The use and misuse of language also fascinated Kubrick — the lingo that distances us from the implications of what we’re doing, and dehumanizes others so we can justify victimizing them. “Enough of words. Action speaks louder than,” says a politician in A Clockwork Orange, and there is a definite tension in Kubrick’s films between the word and the image; almost all his movies feature narration (fittingly, The Shining — about a blocked writer — is a notable exception). Clockwork offers the most delirious linguistics, with sights to match (Anthony Burgess, author of the original novel, is responsible for the lingo), but Kubrick was just as pleased with real-life doublespeak, particularly the military sort heard in Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory (a Kubrick masterwork sorely due for reappraisal), and Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick’s movies, especially Dr. Strangelove on, are distinguished by an intellectual rigor as well as a dynamic purity of design. No movie announces itself quite so boldly as a Kubrick film; it gets in your face right at the start and then pulls back — literally, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, which opens with plain credits against bright mod colors, accompanied by Walter Carlos’ mischievous Moog-rape of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” the first image being Malcolm McDowell leering up into the camera (the famous “Kubrick crazy-face”). The camera then zooms out slowly, encompassing the whole of the Korova Milkbar. It’s as if to say, Here is your guide, and here is his world. I am willing to say that nobody started a film better than Kubrick; think of the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001 (what the hell does this have to do with space travel? we are compelled to watch and find out), the ominous mountain shots in The Shining (with the credits oddly scrolling), the borderline slapstick head-shaving montage wedded to the mournful country-tinged “Hello Vietnam” in Full Metal Jacket (what the hell kind of war film is this? we are compelled to watch and find out). Kubrick hooked you and kept you hooked.

He wasn’t too shabby at endings, either. For here was where Kubrick’s mordant wit really came out to play; he took care to seal things with a perverse joke, usually accompanied by an incongruous yet somehow brilliantly appropriate melody. He killed us all off to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Strangelove; he reprised “Singin’ in the Rain” at the close of Clockwork, leaving us to imagine the cured Alex loose in the streets, kicking his heels (among other things) in a cracked mirror image of Gene Kelly; he left us with two shots of Jack Torrance in The Shining — one mortal, frozen in the snow, one immortal in a roaring-’20s photograph, with period music to match; the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket marched out singing the “Mickey Mouse” theme song, which faded into the Stones’ “Paint It Black” — as good a summing-up of Kubrick’s philosophy as any. Then, of course, the baffling final reel of 2001, destined to be debated long after Kubrick and the rest of us are dust.

In a Kubrickian circular motion, then, we return to Kubrick’s own ending — the master falls after completing his last work. As a director’s fantasy, this perhaps runs a close second to actually dying on the set after calling the final “Cut!” The sad ironies pour in: He never got to see the movie open, never got to see Warner’s batch of DVDs of his films come out, never got to finish that much-talked-about A.I., which he was rumored to be filming four months at a time every five years. And he never got to make his dream movie, a biopic of Napoleon, in which Jack Nicholson was once interested, and for which Anthony Burgess had written a screenplay rejected by Kubrick. No matter how good Eyes Wide Shut may turn out to be, one can’t help feeling that Napoleon would have been a much grander finale. Damn him for being so slow! The movies he never made would wipe the floor with most movies that do get made. Unlike Welles, Kubrick couldn’t point to unfriendly studios as an excuse for his lack of productivity; he had Warner Bros. by the balls, having earned their hands-off, unequivocal support for any project he chose to pursue.

That he chose not to pursue much over the last 20 years is as much a blessing for us fans as it is a curse. There were no Kubrick bummers, no movies he did for the money, no movies he didn’t have his black heart in. Eyes Wide Shut might seem the exception, a conscious sell-out with two big box-office stars, but it’s important to remember that Jack Nicholson wasn’t exactly an obscure dinner-theater actor when Kubrick hired him for The Shining, and Kubrick must have caught the first faint whiff of the mid-’80s Vietnam craze in the air (initiated, one could argue, by Rambo) when he began production on Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick was a businessman as well as an artist. As for Eyes Wide Shut, it’s said to be based on the Arthur Schnitzler novel Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, which he had talked about adapting since the early ’70s. Why not cast Hollywood’s cutest couple as a debauched psychotherapist couple having affairs with their patients? The endlessly perverse Kubrick would have cast Tom Hanks as a leprous child molester — and Hanks, like Tom Cruise and every other actor in his right mind, would have leaped at the chance to fondle toddlers for Kubrick’s camera.

Kubrick was also, it must be said, a pain in the ass. If there is any comfort in his prerelease death, it is that he won’t be around to micromanage every aspect of Eyes Wide Shut‘s distribution, marketing, and exhibition; he won’t be around to inspect each theater and approve the footlights, the projectors, the cushions on the seats, the tiles in the bathrooms. Above all, he won’t be around to demand yet more reshoots or diddle with the footage for another two years. Then again, maybe it isn’t a comfort. All wise-ass comments aside (and wise-ass comments are appropriate when eulogizing our premier wise-ass filmmaker), Kubrick gave a damn. He took years and years between projects, and he took years on each project. He took hundreds of takes, he took the energy of his cast and crew, he took and took. But he also gave. The proof is on your shelf, if you own most of Kubrick’s films on video. Stack them side by side and scan the titles; ask yourself if there’s a turkey in the bunch. There isn’t. Eyes Wide Shut will be his final gift to us; some will inevitably slam it as an unworthy swan song, while others will lionize it as a fitting coda. Either way, the fact of his death will only add weight and anticipation to the movie. Stanley Kubrick’s final film! Way to steal George Lucas’ thunder, Stan! Good planning!

After the movie is gone from theaters, we may feel his passing a second time, a pang of renewed grief when we see the sad words EYES WIDE SHUT: FINAL DAY in the theater listings. Then, some months later, it will take its place alongside its siblings, on the shelf with Kubrick’s other films. After that, there will be no more. Having broken his decade-long silence, Kubrick has fallen silent forever. His work will continue to speak eloquently on his behalf.

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 24, 2011

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” says scrawny 4F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in answer to whether he wants to go kill Nazis. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” And there’s the way into Captain America: The First Avenger even for long-haired lefty peaceniks like me. The movie’s politics pretty much stay that simplistic, but then it harks back to a more simplistic time, when America’s enemies were big and bad and all you had to know was where they were so you could shoot ‘em. Despite being a sickly stick figure, Steve desperately wants to join the Army so he can go fight in World War II. He rejects the notion of finding some way to serve at home; other men, including his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), are charging into the lion’s mouth, and he doesn’t feel he has a right to do any less than what they’re prepared to do.

The CGI-depleted Chris Evans, by way of a “super soldier serum,” becomes normal, beefed-up Chris Evans, and he proves his mettle right away, chasing a spy through the alleys and crowded streets of 1942 Brooklyn. Here and elsewhere, the production design is impeccable, a dream of the wartime big city as seen on Life magazine covers (and probably only there), and director Joe Johnston proves his mettle, too. I can’t say he has a vision, but he has a solid sense of pace and composition that stands him in good stead when he’s got sturdy material to work with. (With Johnston’s last effort, The Wolfman, he wasn’t so lucky.) The elements, including Alan Silvestri’s bombastically retro score, come together to form a ripping good adventure yarn that succeeds where J.J. Abrams’ too-reverent Super 8 failed in paying homage to Steven Spielberg’s salad days.

Captain America is a productive mix of square fortitude and very mild tongue-in-cheek. Even the hero’s name begins as an emasculating joke: Steve, having gained some fame, is pressed into USO service wearing a laughable version of the uniform he eventually wears in combat; he stands in front of crooning showgirls, beseeching audiences to buy bonds, and the media dub him Captain America. Soon, in battle against the fearsome Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his army of soldiers, he will become a real captain and leader of men. The Red Skull is a Nazi so megalomaniacal he doesn’t think Hitler is evil enough; with the help of a “cosmic cube” (which ties this movie to Thor) he builds super-weapons and an army of interchangeable soldiers. I could be wrong, but I think the Red Skull is personally shown killing more Nazis (out of the usual mu-ha-ha, you-dare-to-doubt-me Evil Genius pique) than Captain America is.

Indeed, the real threat in the movie is the Hydra legions, not the Nazis, which helps Captain America neatly avoid any real-world issues. Not that I’m complaining. Nobody particularly wants to see Captain America witnessing flyblown children’s corpses in Auschwitz, or for that matter flinging his impenetrable shield at Iraqi insurgents. What saves the movie from dumb jingoism is Cap’s reliance on a group of good, ethnically-mixed men, even including a Japanese-American soldier. The Howling Commandos, they’re called in the comics, though not in the movie. The actors, particularly Evans, do what they can to invest the film with personality, but in the crunch the script sort of loses track of the people; one major character dies so abruptly, and with so little blowback aside from a brief obligatory mourning scene, that I half expected him to have survived, somehow.

Captain America sells a country’s long-dead dream of itself as an aw-shucks giant modest about its power and benevolent in exercising it. This was never true, really, even before Vietnam made it abundantly clear to anyone without blinders on; see George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 for the scoop on how we’ve treated the rest of the planet as our playpen and piggybank for centuries. But the movie, full of good humor and color and foursquare opposition to bullies, is a lacquered pop-culture valentine to the ideal of America as the good neighbor. That its symbolic hero looks more or less like an Aryan übermensch (and was created in 1940 by two Jewish comics legends, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is among the many pleasant ironies spinning around in this clean, unpretentious, brawnily entertaining fantasia.

The Woman

July 17, 2011

After the Sundance screening last January of Lucky McKee’s The Woman, a man stood up and denounced the film, saying that it should be banned and burned. In other words, intentionally or not, the man was saying that the movie works, and does what a horror movie is supposed to do, which, last time I checked, is to horrify. The Woman isn’t nonstop gore and violence — there’s some, largely towards the end, but for the most part the moments of grue are carefully parceled out. The true horror in the film is what people are capable of doing to other people, under the guise of being model citizens. The monster here is not a masked slasher but an amiable-seeming husband and father of three, with a respectable job and a well-kept house. The house, of course, is out in the boonies where nobody’s watching.

This character, Chris Cleek (a powerhouse performance by Sean Bridgers), is the most contemptible excuse for a man I’ve seen in a movie in years. Even before the horrors start, we can see that he’s got his family under his thumb, and that he’s raising his only son (Zach Rand) to be a callous sociopath just like Dad. His wife (Angela Bettis, who wowed horror fans in McKee’s debut May) has seen a lot but chooses to say nothing. His older daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter) seems hunched over with the weight of awful secrets in her stomach. This is a grim family even before Chris discovers the Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) out in the woods. She is feral, filthy, covered in a mix of blood from herself and from her animal prey. Chris checks her out, then makes a decision. She’ll do.

The Woman spends most of the film painfully tied up in the Cleeks’ cellar, and she becomes a lightning rod for whatever raw emotions the family members are feeling; she represents primitivism, cutting through the crap and the repression of the household’s breakdown of civilization. In a way, she’s like Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero in High Plains Drifter, kicking up the dust that has settled over the lies. Terrible things are done to the Woman, but McKee doesn’t rub our faces in it; I’d say a good 90% of the film is admirably restrained in terms of what it makes us look at. It works by suggestion, metaphor, and emotional violence, the very notion of cruelty.

Why, then, did that man rise and scream about the film? Because, again emotionally, it takes us where few horror films do. It does not show you disgusting things in order to prove how disgusting those things are. It shows you a disgusting situation that many of us have experienced or witnessed helplessly — the abused, frightened wife, the terrorized children, the smug, entitled husband who knows he can get away with anything because he always has. McKee is not saying that all men are like this, any more than he’s saying that all women are like the Woman. It helps to know that the Woman has been around before, in two novels by this film’s co-writer Jack Ketchum, about a cannibal clan. The Woman is one of them, and in this stand-alone story she gets waylaid by Chris Cleek and learns that there’s an even sicker family than the one she ran with.

McKee takes his time; there are many sobering fades to black. Cinematically, he keeps us on edge right from the start. There’s a wince-inducing moment when Chris fires a gun near the Woman’s ear, and the soundtrack drops out except for a high-pitched whine. Most of the violence is impressionistic, as if the movie were averting its own gaze; but when we need catharsis at the end, McKee brings it. This is a serious-minded horror film with a quietly intense performance by Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, who can’t speak English but seems to possess an almost ancient understanding, a primal, atavistic, resigned awareness of what The Man is built to do to The Woman. She, of course, is from a primitive cannibal family, where gender relations haven’t evolved much. But what’s everyone else’s excuse?

Horrible Bosses

July 10, 2011

One thing Horrible Bosses gets right is that it acknowledges how murderously difficult it is to find a job these days. That makes it almost unique among Hollywood films. It also explains why its protagonists — Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day — want to stay in their jobs even though their respective bosses (reptilian CEO Kevin Spacey, cokehead chemical-company owner Colin Farrell, sexual-harassing dentist Jennifer Aniston) make their lives hell. They would enjoy their jobs, or at least not mind them, if not for these bosses. So they get the bright idea of removing the sources of their pain from the equation. In a smarter comedy, this would involve exquisite and elaborate planning and manipulation to outwit the bosses, get them fired, ruined, whatever. In this not-very-smart comedy, our heroes plot to murder the bosses.

The thin joke of the movie is that our boys, likable enough and basically moral, don’t have it in them to be killers. They’re not diabolical enough, and certainly not sociopathic enough. If they actually succeeded, we feel, remorse would strike them down. So despite the promise of the ads, Horrible Bosses is a comedy of goodness, or at least incompetent badness. What hurts is that it never takes off into the wild ozone (like, say, Throw Momma from the Train or The War of the Roses — Danny DeVito really should’ve directed this), nor is it grounded in much reality — it’s a middle-of-the-road farce, too timid to risk losing the audience by making the working lads cold-blooded either in murder or manipulation. It hovers in a banal dead zone. So we’re just watching a trio of idiots doing things that don’t amount to much.

The leads, and the bosses, provide fleeting pleasures. Kevin Spacey takes over the movie, so we don’t get enough of filthy-mouthed Aniston and especially comb-overed Farrell, who cheerfully uglifies himself and seems raring to give a classic wingnut performance. But he and Aniston are sidelined, and we spend a lot of time with Bateman, Sudeikis and Day as they snoop around the bosses’ homes. With one notable, brief exception, none of the bosses meets each other, which might’ve offered some laughs (imagine Spacey going under the gas in flirtatious Aniston’s chair). Jamie Foxx drops in for a couple of scenes as a “murder consultant” nicknamed Motherfucker Jones; he’s funny, but a late-inning revelation removes the bite from his performance.

There’s no bite anywhere else, either. We’re to understand that the guys feel so trapped in their situations their thoughts drift to murder, but none of them have families to worry about (Day’s character is engaged, though his fiancée is a drippy blank), and their predicaments seem inflated. They’re not easily replaceable in their jobs, though they’re never really shown to be good at their jobs, either. The sexual-harassment scenes are assumed to be funny because the genders are reversed, but they just come off as icky. Except for Spacey, who suspects his wife of cheating on him, the bosses have no dimensions other than their horribleness. And except for Day, who brings a frazzled hysteria to his character, the heroes are interchangeable stoics — two straight men.

There’s one small bit of screenwriting ingenuity involving Spacey and a cell phone that arises out of what has been written into him. The movie needed more of that — more fleshed-out characters, from whose motives and flaws a truly smart comedy could emerge. Here we just have a premise, and everyone involved seems to have found that funny enough and called it a day.