Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscar Predictions 2013: Jack Reacher wins by write-in votes

The best of all Oscars.
It's that time again. Yep, the Oscars are here to tell us what we're really going to value twenty years from now, and they're always right. Right? Right, of course. That's why we still love Dances with Wolves and have forgotten Goodfellas to the ashes of irrelevance. No, obviously not, and one could argue that we shouldn't waste time on this at all. But hey, it's fun betting money on who's going to win. So here's what I'm betting on come later tonight.


Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
Denzel Washington (Flight)

THE LOWDOWN: Pretty strong category, with Jackman as the only dud performance of the bunch, so it's a bit of a shame that it's pretty much a foregone conclusion as to who's going to win this. We can write Washington off immediately: he has two Oscars, and while his work in Flight is astonishing, there isn't any buzz around his performance anymore. I wrote back in October that "they might as well give the Best Actor Oscar to Joaquin Phoenix right now"; looks like I'm going to eat those words, because much as he deserves it, I don't think he has a chance unless the Weinstein Company does some of their voodoo for him. Even then, it's more likely that they've put their money behind Bradley Cooper's crowd-pleasing performance in Silver Linings Playbook. It's still not going to be enough to stop Day-Lewis from collecting his record-breaking third leading actor Oscar. It's well-deserved, even if there's one guy who's better.

WILL WIN: Day-Lewis
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: I know there was no shot in hell, but Denis Lavant's performance in Holy Motors was nothing short of miraculous. I would've also loved to see Jamie Foxx's taciturn performance in Django Unchained here.


Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

THE LOWDOWN: Cross Wallis off the list immediately- she's just too young. Watts is more or less out, too, unless the people in Hollywood truly love her. Chastain and Lawrence have split the various awards over the course of the past few months, and while Chastain is the strongest in the category, I unfortunately think that the controversy around Zero Dark Thirty and the "unlikability" of her protagonist is going to count her out. Lawrence is the supposed front-runner, but she's awfully young at 22 to take the gold home. Riva, on the other hand, turns 86 today, on the day of the ceremony, which is both a wonderful incentive (great birthday present) and a reminder that she's probably not going to be here again. That, combined with her heartbreaking performance, makes me think that she's got an edge.

SHOULD WIN: Chastain
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Rachel Weisz gave a career-best performance in The Deep Blue Sea as a woman who learns that passion leads to almost unbearable grief.


Alan Arkin (Argo)
Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

THE LOWDOWN: Well, fuck, this could be anyone. I'm willing to bet that Arkin is out, given that he has the least amount of screentime out of any of these guys by far. Otherwise, though, the precursors have been pretty split: Hoffman won the majority of the critics awards, Waltz won the BAFTA and the Globe, Jones won the SAG award, and De Niro is a sentimental favorite. They've all won at least once before, too, so there's no easy choice there either. I'm going to bet that my favorite, Hoffman, is out simply because he's younger and he was in the most difficult film of the bunch. Waltz won too recently for too similar a role. De Niro and Jones are the best bets, and I'm giving the slight edge to Jones off of the SAG award. No promises, though.

WILL WIN: Jones, though again, it's anybody's game
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Would have loved to see Waltz's co-stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, show up. But it's a damn shame that Matthew McConaughey couldn't show up for anything he did this year, considering that he resurrected his status as a talented character actor after appearing in so many dreadful romcoms.


Amy Adams (The Master)
Sally Field (Lincoln)
Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)

THE LOWDOWN: Hunt's film is too small and she's already won, so she's out. Also confident that we can write off Weaver unless she pulls a Beatrice Straight in Network win out of her tiny, tiny role. Adams has been nominated here four times (and she's the best of the bunch), but the film is too difficult and she's still young enough that they'd make her wait. Field has the best chance at an upset, but the fact that she's already won twice is going to count against her. I'd say Hathaway is pretty easily going to get it for being the only real reason to see Les Miserables. She's good, but I'm going to pretend she's winning for her better performance in The Dark Knight Rises (or that this is for her career-best work in Rachel Getting Married).

WILL WIN: Hathaway
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Jennifer Ehle is one of the best actresses that no one knows, and Zero Dark Thirty should have changed that. Credit also goes to Kelly Reilly for her scene-stealing role in Flight. I'm most disappointed, though, that Judi Dench missed out for Skyfall.


Wes Anderson/Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom)
Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty)
John Gatins (Flight)
Michael Haneke (Amour)
Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)

THE LOWDOWN: Drop the two non-Best Picture nominees. After that, it gets complicated. Boal won the WGA award, but Tarantino and Haneke were ineligible for it, so that's not a great judge. Also: he won very recently for The Hurt Locker. He has a chance, but I'm putting him in third. Haneke's disadvantage is that he's foreign, but there's clearly respect for him and for the film (he is up for Director, after all). Tarantino, meanwhile, won Screenplay for Pulp Fiction, but that was nearly twenty years ago, so it might not count against him. It's going to be a squeaker, but I'm going with Haneke.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: It's absolutely absurd to me that Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't even manage a nomination for The Master, but the Academy clearly didn't respond to it outside of the performances. Another great one: Rian Johnson for Looper.


Lucy Alibar/Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
David Magee (Life of Pi)
Tony Kushner (Lincoln)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Chris Terrio (Argo)

THE LOWDOWN: I'm miffed about some of these, as I didn't think Beasts' screenplay was a highlight; ditto for Terrio's well-structured but thin work on Argo. I think Alibar and Zeitlin don't have much of a chance here, while Magee' disadvantage is that Life of Pi comes off as more of a director's movie than a writer's movie. Russell looked like he had a shot some time ago, but the film has lost momentum and I'm betting that the Academy will want to go with an "important" film. That leaves Kushner, who should win, and Terrio, who I think will win because of A. the Guild win, and B. Argo's seemingly unstoppable momentum. Meh.

WILL WIN: Terrio
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Terence Davies for The Deep Blue Sea


Anna Karenina
The Hobbit
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

THE LOWDOWN: My bet is that The Hobbit is out; the film just wasn't well-loved enough. Also betting against Life of Pi, as I'm surprised it's even here. One might think that the well-respected Best Picture nominees Lincoln and Les Miserables would be the obvious choices, but I think the visual lushness of the otherwise unsuccessful Anna Karenina is just too good to pass up.

SHOULD/WILL WIN: Anna Karenina
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: How do Wes Anderson's films not show up here every time they're eligible? My brain is reeling. Also: Jack Fisk for The Master


Anna Karenina
Les Miserables
Mirror Mirror
Snow White and the Huntsman

THE LOWDOWN: Anna Karenina for the reasons above.
SHOULD/WILL WIN: Anna Karenina
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: See what I said about Moonrise Kingdom and The Master above.


Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
Life of Pi

THE LOWDOWN: Robert Richardson has won a number of times, including last year for Hugo, so I'm counting him out. Also betting against Janusz Kaminski picking up another one for Lincoln, and I doubt Anna Karenina wins anything outside of the design awards. It's between Roger Deakins for Skyfall and Claudio Miranda for Life of Pi. Deakins has lost here 9 times, including for years he should have been a shoe-in (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo). And while Skyfall shows that he's a master whether he's working on digital or celluloid, I think this is going to be loss number 10. The academy loves going for new technology in cinematography, and Life of Pi is going to get the same boost that Hugo and Avatar got by mixing photography with visual effects. He'll win someday...

SHOULD WIN: Deakins for Skyfall
WILL WIN: Miranda for Life of Pi
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Ok. I know that not everyone shares my love for The Master. But anyone who can look at Mihai Malaimare's gorgeous work (on 70mm, no less!) and say that it isn't one of the most beautiful looking films they've seen in ages, let alone among the top five of the year, has faulty eyes. This was the single most mystifying snub this year.


Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

THE LOWDOWN: Silver Linings and Lincoln aren't showy enough to take home the gold. Life of Pi could possibly manage it if it sweeps the technical awards, but I'm leaning towards William Goldenberg's brilliant work on Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Few other films used editing as well this year, so it's really just a case of whether it'll be Goldenberg's work with Dylan Tichenor on Zero (should be) or his solo work on Argo (more likely). I'm going with the Best Picture front-runner.

SHOULD WIN: Zero Dark Thirty
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Steven Soderbergh for Haywire


The Hobbit
Les Miserables

THE LOWDOWN: Hitchcock was more or less reviled, so I'm guessing that it won't win for turning Anthony Hopkins into Alfred Hitchcock. Some might bet on The Hobbit taking this, but I think Les Miserables has the edge for being a Best Picture nominee and for being more overtly Oscar-baity.

SHOULD WIN: The Hobbit
WILL WIN: Les Miserables
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: I'd argue for the great work making Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis in Looper, but no use of make-up this year was more essential than all the different transformations Denis Lavant went through in Holy Motors. Maybe the academy would know that if they bothered to watch the damn thing.


Les Miserables
Life of Pi

THE LOWDOWN: Lincoln is the least showy, so it's out. I could see Argo winning both sound awards if it sweeps everything, but I'm not betting on it here. Skyfall would certainly be deserving, but I imagine they'll want to go with something with a little more gravitas. Life of Pi could certainly take both sound awards, but I'm betting that Les Miserables takes this one, as musicals have a history of winning sound mixing.

WILL WIN: Les Miserables
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, The Impossible, Flight


Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

THE LOWDOWN: Zero Dark Thirty should win, but I think it's getting completely shut out tonight. Ditto for Django Unchained. Argo and Skyfall have a good chance here, but I'm betting that they'll go with Life of Pi.

SHOULD WIN: Zero Dark Thirty
WILL WIN: Life of Pi


The Avengers
The Hobbit
Life of Pi
Snow White and the Huntsman

THE LOWDOWN: If you make one single bet tonight, let it be Life of Pi for Visual Effects. I'm not saying that the other films are undeserving- I particularly liked Prometheus for this- but Life of Pi has both a Best Picture nomination bump and some of the most gorgeous and realistic use of CGI in film history. Go with it.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: I'd like to see more practical effects heavy films get in here. Give some love to Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises


Mychael Danna (Life of Pi)
Alexandre Desplat (Argo)
Dario Marianelli (Anna Karenina)
Thomas Newman (Skyfall)
John Williams (Lincoln)

THE LOWDOWN: Marianelli won for Atonement and he doesn't have a Best Picture nomination on his side, so I'm counting him out. Also betting against the frequent Oscar-loser Newman. Desplat's score for Argo honestly isn't his most memorable this year. William has won five times for more memorable scores. I think Danna has this, and he's the best of the nominees, so I'll be cheering him on.

SHOULD/WILL WIN: Danna for Life of Pi
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Replace Desplat's score here for his work on Moonrise Kingdom. The big one? Jonny Greenwood's fascinating, strange score for The Master


"Before My Time" (Chasing Ice)
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (Ted)
"Pi's Lullaby" (Life of Pi)
"Skyfall" (Skyfall)
"Suddenly" (Les Miserables)

THE LOWDOWN: I was surprised "Pi's Lullaby" showed up here, as I just assumed it was part of the score. It's a great number, but I think that Danna's win for score is going to have to satisfy him. I'm going to count out "Before My Time", as it's part of the least-seen of the nominees, and "Everybody Needs a Best Friend", which is fun but part of a sillier movie. That boring song from Les Mis has a shot, but everyone loves giving Adele awards, so I think it'll happen here. It'll be the first Bond song to win an Oscar.

SHOULD/WILL WIN: Adele for "Skyfall"
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Is it too much to ask for "Who Were We?" from Holy Motors? Probably, but I'm going to gripe about it anyway.


Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-it Ralph

THE LOWDOWN: Pirates! just squeaked in here, and I'm betting it's out. Paranorman was well-liked but didn't do well at the box office. Frankenweenie was met with a thundering "meh", and a vote for it would really just be a vote for Tim Burton. I'd say it's between Brave and Wreck-it Ralph, both of which have been splitting the precursors. The former is forgettable but has the Pixar machine on its side. The latter is great but has the disadvantage of being about a video game, which a lot of the older, stodgier voters might turn their noses up at. I'm giving an edge to Wreck-it Ralph, but only just.

SHOULD/WILL WIN: Wreck-it Ralph
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: I didn't see enough animated films this year to say.


5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

THE LOWDOWN: The Invisible War has a chance to make some actual change in army policy, so I'm giving it an edge over the other three "important" documentaries. But I think the story of how Searching for Sugar Man resurrected Rodriguez's music career is too great to resist.

SHOULD WIN: I haven't seen Sugar Man, so it's hard to say. My favorite of the ones I've seen is The Invisible War
WILL WIN: Sugar Man


A Royal Affair
War Witch

THE LOWDOWN: Most would assume that Amour has it in the bag, what with a Best Picture nomination and all, but the Weinsteins have put a lot of money into Kon-Tiki, so it could be surprise. Still, I'm betting on Amour. It's just too terrific to resist.

WILL/SHOULD WIN: Amour, after which Michael Haneke will re-enact the most famous scene from Cache, horrifying everyone
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Holy Motors, The Turin Horse


Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
The Longest Daycare

THE LOWDOWN: These are hard to predict. I've only seen Paperman, and much as I'd love to see a Simpsons short (The Longest Daycare) take it, I'm going with the charming short that I've seen.


Buzkashi Boys
Death of a Shadow

THE LOWDOWN: What, like you've seen any of this stuff? I'm just gonna go with Buzkashi Boys.


King's Point
Mondays at Racine
Open Heart

THE LOWDOWN: Christ, I have no idea. I'll just go with Mondays at Racine.


Michael Haneke (Amour)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

THE LOWDOWN: Zeitlin is too new. Haneke is too foreign. The other three all have a shot. Russell has the Weinsteins behind him, but I think that a comedy like Silver Linings isn't going to get the same chance. A lot of predictors have migrated over to Ang Lee as of late, and he certainly has the showiest (and, to be fair, most gorgeous) work here. Spielberg has the fact that Lincoln is quieter than most of his films working against him, not to mention the fact that he's already won twice. But then again, Lee has won once, and Russell seems like a distant third to me. I'm not at all confident about this. Dammit, Academy, had you just nominated Ben Affleck like we all thought you were going to this would have been a lot easier. I'll go with Spielberg.

WILL WIN: Spielberg...maybe Lee
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: (deep breath) Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Leos Carax (yes, I know he had no chance)


Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

THE LOWDOWN: Another year, another example of me being puzzled that they didn't just go to ten nominees. It would have given deserving contenders like Moonrise Kingdom and The Master some recognition, but oh well. Let's go down the line: I think Zero Dark Thirty (the best of the bunch) and Django Unchained are too controversial and are going to be shut out. I also expect Beasts of the Southern Wild to get shut out on account of being too small. Amour is too foreign. Les Miserables is too divisive/not very good.

That leaves four remaining nominees that look like they've got a fighting chance. Silver Linings loses points for being a comedy, which the Oscars don't go for too often, and while it seems odd to say that a movie with 8 nominations is going to get shut out, I just don't think it'll push past the tough competition. Life of Pi will probably have to settle for technical nominations like Avatar and Hugo before it (for the record, I think it's a better movie than those two). That leaves a race between Lincoln and Argo, which has picked up a lot of momentum since Ben Affleck was snubbed for Best Director. The only thing that keeps me from saying Argo is a lock (aside from the Best Director snub, which tends to mean that your chance is blown) is the fact that something similar happened way back in 1995 with Apollo 13: the film was seen as a front-runner, only for Ron Howard to be snubbed for director. It ramped up some precursor wins (SAG ensemble, DGA, PGA) much like Argo has, but it ultimately lost Best Picture to Braveheart (ugh). Still, I'm not betting on a repeat. Argo just seems to be the movie of the moment, and while I think Lincoln still has a shot, it'll ultimately be a case of Argo pushing past the Director snub so producers Affleck, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov can go up to the stand and tell the Academy to Argo fuck themselves.

Total awards predictions:
Argo: 3 (Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing)
Lincoln: 3 (Director, Actor, Supporting Actor)
Amour: 3 (Actress, Original Screenplay, Foreign Film)
Les Miserables: 3 (Supporting Actress, Sound Mixing, Hair/Makeup)
Life of Pi: 4 (Cinematography, Visual Effects, Original Score, Sound Editing)
Anna Karenina: 2 (Costume Design, Production Design)
Skyfall: 1 (Original Song)
Wreck-it Ralph: 1 (Animated Film)
Searching for Sugar Man: 1 (Documentary Feature)
Paperman/Mondays at Racine/Buzkashi Boys: 1 each (the short categories that I don't know shit about)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Overlooked Gems #52: Down to the Bone

Grade: 69 (B)

I’m not sure what’s taking Debra Granik so long to make another film, but she’s certainly great at stoking anticipation. 2010’s Winter’s Bone was more than a Sundance breakout hit: it’s easily one of the best films of the new decade, a smart and tightly-wound backwoods noir filled with subtle yet towering performances. Granik’s creation of a lived-in, realistic world for the tension-packed film was particularly stunning considering that she had only made one film before, 2004’s little-seen Down to the Bone (let’s hope that the 2004-2010 gap doesn’t set precedent). Granik’s debut isn’t half the masterpiece Winter’s Bone is, but it’s still a striking and often powerful film that shows that Granik’s was a talent just waiting to be discovered.

On the surface, grocery-store worker Irene (Vera Farmiga) is a normal young woman and responsible mother of two young boys. Irene lives a hard life, however: she has a secret cocaine habit that she hides, not too successfully, from her sons. When her dealer turns her away for having too large a tab, Irene decides to get her life back on track and enroll in a rehabilitation program. With the help of the understanding former-addict nurse Bob (Hugh Dillon), Irene gets clean, but life on the outside is unforgiving, and Irene is constantly on the verge of screwing up again.

I’ll reveal the major caveat to Down to the Bone right now: the film looks like absolute garbage. That’s not a slight against Granik or cinematographer Michael McDonough, who later re-teamed on the gorgeous-looking Winter’s Bone. Granik and McDonough bring the same sense of stunning naturalism and unfussiness here. The problem is with the cheap digital camera Down to the Bone was shot on.

That’s not a slight against digital photography either, as the later film shot digitally. Allow me to get technical: Winter’s Bone was shot on the sophisticated Red One M camera (also a favorite of Steven Soderbergh’s). Down to the Bone, on the other hand, was shot on the Sony DSR-PD150, a camera also responsible for making David Lynch’s Inland Empire look like a blotchy vomit. Down to the Bone is an infinitely stronger film than Inland Empire, but it has the same hideous blotchiness, and that often works against Granik and McDonough’s clear talent.

But the film’s visual flaws aren’t enough to completely obscure the power of Granik’s direction and of her story. Down to the Bone’s depiction of addiction doesn’t go to many new places, but its even-handed, non-judgmental tone and often breathless tension shows seeds of the low-key brilliance of Granik’s upcoming masterpiece. Granik also shows the same deft hand at working with actors: the relatively unknown cast is all strong, particularly Dillon as another man struggling with past mistakes. But the highlight is the then-unknown Farmiga in a quietly intense, deeply vulnerable performance as a good woman struggling with demons that constantly threaten to overtake her. Farmiga was a surprise winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Between her borderline discovery of both Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence, it’s clear that Winter’s Bone is no fluke. Granik’s next film will no doubt be something special, whenever she does decide to return.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.7: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 99 (A)

Despite the controversy (or, indeed, because of it), Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita was a smash hit at the box office. For his next film, Kubrick moved on to a subject that had become an obsession for the young filmmaker: nuclear war. Terrified at the possibility of annihilation at the push of a button, Kubrick read up on nuclear physics and procedures before deciding to adapt Peter George’s potboiler Red Alert. Kubrick, George, and Kubrick’s production partner James B. Harris spent some time trying to adapt the novel as a straightforward thriller, but Kubrick felt that the whole idea of nuclear war had an inherent absurdity to it. As Harris left the partnership to pursue a directing career of his own, Kubrick came to a new conclusion: this should be a comedy.

What happened next is the stuff of legend: Kubrick hired counterculture writer Terry Southern to co-write a satirical, darkly funny movie about nuclear war, brought back his Lolita collaborator Peter Sellers, and went on to make the single most influential and important satirical film of all time. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was another hit, and it garnered Kubrick his first trio of Oscar nominations for producing, directing, and co-writing the film (as well as a Best Actor nomination for Sellers). More importantly, though, it established Kubrick’s signature style more than any of his previous films, marking Kubrick’s transition from talented young filmmaker to one of the greatest directors who ever lived.

General Jack T. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has stumbled upon the single most insidious communist plot: fluoridation of water, which will then “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”. Of course Ripper has actually gone insane, and in his bout of insanity he orders the Strategic Air Command to go past their fail-safe points and bomb the Soviet Union, which will effectively start World War III. Ripper’s aide, RAF officer Capt. Mandrake (Sellers), begs Ripper for the recall code, to no avail, as Maj. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) and other bombers race towards their targets, oblivious to Ripper’s madness.

At the same time, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) calls his staff to try to stop the bombing, but he’s having a tricky time. The fanatical anti-communist Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is convinced that the president should just go all-out and bomb Russia all over so they can’t retaliate. President Muffley brings in Russian Ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull) to try to smooth the situation over, but Sadesky brings a new terror when he informs the president that any nuclear attack on Russia will trigger the Doomsday Machine, which will set off enough nukes to end the human race. Muffley’s advisor Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again), meanwhile, tries to stop Armageddon by coming up with an alternate survival plan.

Part of Kubrick’s genius comes from his brilliant casting choices. Sellers is almost certainly one of the greatest comic actors who ever lived, and the studio’s insistence that he play multiple roles (much as his character Quilty had in Lolita) works to Kubrick’s advantage. It’s an inspired nod both to the great black comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (which similarly cast Alec Guinness in multiple roles) and, with Sellers’ mad scientist Strangelove, Fritz Lang’s own tale of technology gone mad Metropolis, whose equally mad Rotwang Strangelove resembles. More importantly, it takes perfect advantage of Sellers’ chameleonic gifts. The actor is perfect as both the comically polite Mandrake and the hilariously mild-mannered Muffley, the two straight men and voices of reasons amidst all the chaos. He’s equally strong as Strangelove, the most bizarre and inspired creation in an already terrific cast of characters.

Sellers’ performances aren’t the only great ones in Dr. Strangelove, however. He’s matched by the always terrific Sterling Hayden, whose breakdown is hilarious precisely because the perpetually tough-as-nails Hayden plays the role as if he were in the most serious of dramas, glowering and rambling to a horrified Capt. Mandrake about communist plots to mess with American sexual fluids. Pickens, meanwhile, really did think he was in a straightforward drama, and his larger-than-life Texan never feels self-aware.

Perhaps the funniest performance in the whole cast, however, comes from Scott as Turgidson, a sex-obsessed, rabidly anti-communist general who’s just as crazy as Gen. Ripper in his own way. Scott apparently wanted to play Turgidson a bit more naturalistically, and Kubrick had to convince him that his over-the-top, unhinged takes were just warm-up exercises rather than what was going in the final film. It’s another case of Kubrick manipulating an actor in order to reshape his performance in the editing room. Scott was reportedly furious, but he shouldn’t have been. It’s debatably his best performance. I certainly don’t cherish any moment of Scott’s career more than the image of him flapping his arms like wings to illustrate the effectiveness of American bomber pilots, answering Muffley’s worried question of whether the pilot has a chance to get past Russian forces and start nuclear annihilation with “HAS HE GOT A CHANCE? HELL YES!...oh…”

But while the film is filled with great performances and guiding by Southern and Kubrick’s pitch-perfect script, it would no doubt be little more than an unhinged bout of lunacy without Kubrick’s deft formalism bringing it to life. Kubrick combines the organized chaos of the Marx Bros. with the pitch-black comedy of Ealing and late-period Chaplin, and the realism of Max Ophuls with the German Expressionist and Expressionist-influenced formalism of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles.

It’s more than just a mixture of great influences, though: here is the first case of the true, fully-formed Kubrick Style that has influenced generations of filmmakers. The film keeps the sense of forward momentum that Kubrick brought to The Killing and Paths of Glory: Dr. Strangelove is beautifully paced, and Kubrick cuts between the scenes at the bomber, the war room, and the military base with aplomb. Kubrick also still knows how to perfectly frame every shot, whether he’s shooting an exasperated-looking Mandrake reacting to Ripper’s insanity; Ripper glowering I the shadows like a madman; Muffley anchored by a group of unhelpful advisors, trying desperately to stop the end of the world; or just the entire table at the war room, framed like a giant poker game over the fate of the world.

Kubrick also keeps the irreverence he brought with Lolita. It’s been said that each Kubrick film responds to the last, and here it’s a case of Kubrick taking the previous film’s irreverent look at personal destruction and blowing it up to universal destruction. This irreverence begins immediately with a disingenuous claim that the Air Force takes safeguards to prevent this sort of thing from happening and that none of the characters are based on any real people (in fact, Turgidson and Ripper both resemble the fanatical Gen. Curtis LeMay so closely it’s frightening). As if the subtitle of How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb weren’t enough to show the world how ridiculous the whole situation is, the opening credits of the film take place over the highly suggestive shot of one plane refueling another to an orchestral version of Otis Redding’s classic “Try a Little Tenderness”. It’s both connotative of how overtly phallic much of military technology is and deeply ironic in how decidedly not tender the actions of the military men are in the film. As Martin Scorsese said in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, “we knew immediately that anything could happen in this movie”.

What’s most important, however, is how Kubrick also brings something new: a hypnotic, meditative rhythm and slight detachment that provokes a strong sense of unease in the viewer. As Kubrick shrouds Ripper in the shadows and cuts to a variety of strange angles, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right even before Mandrake realizes that Ripper has gone utterly insane. Even more indicative of this is Mandrake’s confrontation with Ripper: Kubrick shoots from behind Ripper’s desk, slightly off-center, as Mandrake tries to convince Ripper that the Russians are not attacking and that the bombers must be recalled. Kubrick takes his time, showing Mandrake dutifully, respectfully informing Ripper of the situation as Ripper slowly locks the office door and Mandrake realizes the gravity of the situation. It’s a polarized look at good and evil- the face of reason and the face of madness butting heads as reason is slowly backed into a corner. Kubrick also brings that to his photography of the war room, cutting between various angles of President Muffley, Gen. Turgidson, and the whole war room, capturing unconventional agnles as a way to keep the audience on edge. That edge also carries over the bomber pilot scenes, which play as almost nightmare comedy as the bombers slowly edge toward annihilation. 

What’s almost as impressive is Kubrick’s sense of perfectionism. True, Kubrick had shown his perfectionist nature in earlier films, but it truly comes through in Ken Adam’s glorious production design here. The Air Force base is so perfectly detailed that it could easily pass for the real thing. The bomber plane practically did pass for the real thing, right down to the CRM-114 machine that the bombers received coded messages from: Adam’s design was so accurate that he and Kubrick were nearly investigated by the FBI. Kubrick’s decision to zoom in on the technology whenever the pilots use it is a brilliant one: it communicates not only the sense of detail, but the idea that these tiny switches and buttons hold the fate of the whole world. Best of all is the gorgeous War Room set: darkly lit, with a giant map (or, excuse me, “the Big Board”) on the wall and a giant table in the center. Legend has it that Kubrick insisted the table be covered in a green felt similar to poker tables even though the film was to be shot in black-and-white. It was worth it: the idea is perfectly communicated.

Of course, Dr. Strangelove is a comedy, and a wickedly funny one at that. Credit goes to Southern and the cast for their contributions, the film wouldn’t work without the touch of a master ironist at the helm. Some of the biggest laughs in the film come from characters’ blasé reactions or understatements in the face of terror:

Gen. Ripper: “It looks like we’re in a shooting war.”
Capt. Mandrake: “Oh hell.”

Gen. Turgidson: “I hate to judge before all the facts are in, but it looks like Gen. Ripper may have exceeded his authority.”

President Muffley, on the phone with Russian Premier Kissoff: “One of our generals…well, he went a little funny in the head, and he went and did a silly thing…”

Other great bits come from characters hilariously missing the point of grave situations, from soldiers about to shoot on their own troops (“Gee, those trucks sure look like the real thing”) to Turgidson not getting the gravity of the Doomsday Machine (“gee, I wish we had one of those…”) to Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), who stumbles upon Mandrake and proves almost impossibly unhelpful in saving the day:

Capt. Mandrake, who doesn’t have enough change to make an all-important call to the president: “Colonel, I want you to shoot the lock off that Coca-Cola machine.”
Col. Guano: “That’s private property!”

Still, some of the best gags simply come from the outsized mayhem of the situation, from Maj. Kong, who opens a safe only to pull out a ten-gallon cowboy hat (“I reckon this is it!”), to Mandrake, who listens in on Ripper’s dead serious warnings about commies only to find a jazzy tune playing on a civilian broadcast station, proving that the Russians haven’t invaded after all. Of course, if it’s outsized actions one wants, one could simply watch scenes of ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, explaining away his plans of preserving the human race through eugenics while his hand uncontrollably goes into a Nazi salute. Or how about the unforgettable image of Slim Pickens riding a nuclear missile like a bucking bronco, screaming “YEEHAW!” all the way to the end of the world.

More fun is still to be had at Kubrick’s use of military men who start wars over obsessions with sex.  General Ripper is frequently shown giving the famous Kubrick glare while holding a big cigar- the ultimate phallic symbol- between his lips, or while holding a gun- the other great phallic symbol. It’s no coincidence: Ripper’s whole theory is about communists messing with the purity of American bodily fluids, and he hilariously relates his theory to Mandrake, who’s mortified to learn that the whole thing started because of Ripper’s own bout with impotence (there’s a fun theory- war mongers are the way they are because they can’t get it up). He’s hardly the only sex-obsessed lunatic of the bunch- Turgidson spends much of his time fooling around with his secretary, using nuclear terms to describe sex (“You get your countdown started, and old Bucky will be back before you can say blastoff!”). Then there’s Dr. Strangelove’s plan of repopulating the human race by giving ten women to each man, with the woman selected for their sexually stimulating nature (it must be said that Turgidson approves), or Maj. Kong riding a phallic symbol of war to its nuclear orgasm. And then there’s the characters names, most of which make some reference to sexuality: Jack T. Ripper is named after a famous murderer of prostitutes, Muffley and Mandrake are both references to female genetalia, Sadesky to Marquis de Sade, Turgidson to a swollen member, and Strangelove…well, that one speaks for itself. One noted exception, of course, comes with “deviated prevert” fearing Col. Bat Guano, which simply, and appropriately, stands for “batshit”.

Previous Kubrick films had dealt with the dark side of technology (most notably Paths of Glory with its harrowing depiction of World War I), but Dr. Strangelove is the first Kubrick film that takes a good, hard look at the subject. There’s a classic three-way conflict at the film’s center (Americans vs. General Ripper and his bombers vs. Russians), and much of the problem comes from man’s own inhuman technology. There’s a meticulous nature to both the nuclear program and its strategy (not to mention the absurdly detailed survival kit given to the bombers), but everything goes wrong when one lunatic comes unhinged and decides to take action. The rest of the film is a slow-burning look at total destruction, with both the American plans and the Russian Doomsday Machine working exactly as they’re supposed to but with one key element going terribly wrong.

Much of the problem comes from the characters entrapment: Mandrake can’t communicate to the bombers or the president, Muffley can’t get to the bombers or get through to the people around him, and the bombers are completely out of reach from everyone. And even as things start to go right for Mandrake, Muffley and company, they can’t quite count on one bomber getting past everything and completing its mission…and therefore ending humanity as we know it. Kubrick was a meticulous planner by nature, and yet he recognizes the human propensity for error and how it throws everything that goes right completely off.

It doesn’t help that much of the violence is exacerbated by a gigantic pissing contest between nations. From the beginning, the mad Gen. Turgidson refuses to extend any sort of camaraderie to the Russians even though their fate hangs in balance together. When it’s clear that the Russians could easily counterattack with their own nuclear weapons, Turgidson recommends to the president that he kill up to 20 million more Russians to keep the American people alive (I loved a detail I had never noticed before: Turgidson’s binder reads “World Targets in Megadeaths”). When the president allows Sadesky in the war room, an exasperated Turgidson complains that Sadesky will see the big board, never mind that it hardly matters at the moment. Turgidson and Sadesky fight, prompting the famous “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!” as Muffley tries to keep some semblance of order to everything.

It’s no use. Kubrick is, despite several claims to the contrary, a humanist. He’s too afraid of the possibility of the end of the world for it to be otherwise. But his humanism is very tough-minded, and he recognizes that madness and dehumanization are a central part of humanity (when asked what surprised him most about humanity, Kubrick wryly answered, “That we’re still here”). The people in charge are either lunatics or are decent men overpowered by lunatics. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction acts as a perfect deterrent to humanity wiping each other out…unless a central factor like a Doomsday Machine is kept a secret. One side dehumanizes the other as degenerate atheists, the other as capitalist stooges. It captures the madness of the times, but it doesn’t feel too far removed from the madness of today- to this day, we’re still a button-push away from total destruction, and some of the people in charge, either in government or in the military, are a step away from insanity.

As much of humanity meets its end, the two sides can’t stop fighting (“we cannot allow a mineshaft gap!”), and Strangelove’s plan to save humanity is horrifying and dehumanizing in its own way (“...animals can be bred and SLAUGHTERED…computer can calculate who to keep…we’ll be led by leadership and tradition!”), taking on overtly fascist tones even before Strangelove breaks out into Nazi salutes and “Mein fuhrer, I can walk!”. There’s little to do but laugh at the insanity of it all, especially as Kubrick finishes the film with a happy Vera Lynn song playing over shots of nuclear annihilation. “We’ll meet again/don’t know where/don’t know when/but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

Grade: 28 (C-)

I didn’t walk out of A Good Day to Die Hard, but I had mentally and emotionally checked out of the film fairly quickly. It’s a bad film, but it’s hard to care about it beyond the fact that it sullies the name of the original 1988 action classic. A Good Day to Die Hard isn’t just the worst entry in the franchise: it’s the most pointless. It has no reason for being, no sense of investment on anyone’s part, and practically nothing of interest in its 97-minute running time. If this review sports a mood of weary resignation, it’s because it’s hard to care too much about a film where the collective amount of shits given by the people who made it add up to 0.0.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is once again the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time. John has reconnected with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, reprising her role from the previous film in a cameo), but he remains on poor terms with his son, John “Jack” McClane, Jr. (Jai Courtney, winner of the Sam Worthington lookalike contest). When Jack is accused of assassinating a politician in Russia, John travels to Moscow to try to help his estranged son. It turns out that Jack is actually a CIA operative trying to save political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) from the ruthless Russian official Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov). Komarov, it turns out, has some dirt connecting Chagarin to some dirty deeds, and the CIA are ready to help spring him. But things go awry as Jack’s partner is killed, and now father and son reunite to help kick ass, save the day, and yell “yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” once again.

As one might expect from a Die Hard movie, not everything is what it seems. Yet none of the complications or twists register. Part of it comes from a deeply convoluted plot courtesy of screenwriter Skip Woods, the man behind such cinematic atrocities as Swordfish and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Part of it comes from director John Moore’s dull action scenes, all of which feel artificial and without any sense of stakes. Part of it comes from the fact that this is the only film in the series that feels so generic that it could have been made at any point in time by anyone. Die Hard 4.0/Live Free or Die Hard (whatever you want to call it) might have been hampered by Len Wiseman’s generic directing, but at least it had an idea of where to take the series (cyber terrorism). Badly executed as it might have been, there was still a sense of effort behind it.

The same can’t be said here. Everyone behind and in front of the camera feels like they’re going through the motions, particularly a sleepwalking Willis and the dull Courtney, both of whom come off less like McClane and son and more like cardboard macho assholes. What’s most distressing is that the film doesn’t even seem to know why audiences loved Die Hard in the first place. Where the original film had three or four memorable villains, this one has none. Where the original was outrageously funny, this one can barely bother to utter its one repetitive, unfunny joke (John McClane is on vacation…which he isn’t. Apparently the screenwriter didn’t bother to read the script). Where the original made McClane a put-upon, wisecracking  everyman with a sense of vulnerability, here he’s just a stuntman crashing through several panes of glass without any real damage. I can barely even dignify this thing with contempt. This isn’t Die Hard. It’s some other kind of crappy thriller.

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Director Spotlight #12.6: Stanley Kubrick's Lolita

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 71 (B)

Spartacus was a rough experience for Stanley Kubrick, but it gave the young director an important lesson the importance of creative control. More importantly, it gave Kubrick the clout he needed to tell a story he was truly passionate about: Lolita. Adapted from Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial, masterful novel, Lolita was one of the first Kubrick films that saw the director pushing the envelope, both in terms of subject matter and form. The film is not one of Kubrick’s true masterpieces: it’s far too messy to rank high on his list. But Lolita does represent an essential step forward for Kubrick, one that would lead to the finest period of his career.

Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is an Englishman in America,  a sly, sarcastic man who barely hides his contempt for the rest of humanity. When Humbert gets a job as an English teacher at a university, he moves into a boarding house owned by Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters). Humbert finds Charlotte agonizingly irritating and stupid, and he doesn’t much appreciate her advances towards him. But Humbert is absolutely transfixed by Charlotte’s 14-year-old daughter, Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon). Humbert lusts after Lolita while putting up with Charlotte’s affection, but he has competition in Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), an acclaimed playwright who has his own sick obsession with Lolita.

Give Kubrick this: he’s certainly taking risks here. A film about an unrepentant pedophile given to acerbic comments about everyone around him is a hard sell for any era, let alone 1962. Kubrick himself lamented that he couldn’t do the sexual material in the novel justice given the strict censorship code. But what’s far more important, and indeed more impressive, is that Kubrick captures much of the book’s spirit and tone even though he only carries over Humbert’s narration from the novel in a few scenes. Kubrick can’t completely carry over the book’s literary style, but he’s more than capable of capturing the novel’s sense of black comedy. The result is the antithesis of his previous film, Spartacus (which Kubrick irreverently references early in the film): overtly sexual, morally hazy, and with a protagonist no one could ever love.

Kubrick’s finely tuned sense of irony and wry dark humor permeates through every frame of Lolita, beginning with the creepily suggestive opening shot of a young girl’s toenails being painted, complete with a lush, romantic score; Kubrick shows delight at making the audience uncomfortable, and it’s a pretty marvelous sick joke. He does even better with the opening scene, which starts at the sad ending of the story with a jealous Humbert murdering a drunken Quilty. Quilty’s soused ramblings and beside-the-point observations make up some of the best material in the film (after Humbert pulls a gun: “You’re sort of a bad loser, Captain. It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play…”), and the pathetic desperation of his final moments set a perfect tone for the film. It’s very telling that Kubrick shows Quilty trying to engage Humbert in a ping pong game, only to shoot the dominant and pistol-packing Humbert as a man with a clear upper-hand in the situation. It’s a tale of how life is a sick game, stacked against all the players.

Kubrick handles the material at Haze’s boarding house just as well. Some of the film’s biggest laughs are at the expense of poor Charlotte Haze, a big-hearted but obnoxious woman who’s too lovestruck by Humbert to realize what a monster he is. For every flirtatious advance Charlotte makes, HUmbert replies with withering sarcasm (“Everytime you touch me, I go limp as a noodle” “Yes, I know the feeling”). Humbert even has a cruel laugh at Charlotte’s expense when she leaves a note expressing her true love for him, which he exploits to stay close to Lolita. She’s too blinded by love to realize that she’s fallen for a sociopathic pervert.

Kubrick isn’t completely heartless towards Charlotte, however. He sympathizes with her and lingers on and emphasizes her genuine pain. She’s well-meaning, and her messy humanity certainly stands out against Humbert and Quilty’s cold calculation. Kubrick’s real feelings come out when Charlotte finally realizes Humbert’s monstrous nature. Heartbroken, tears in her eyes, she cries out the truth: “you’re a disgusting, despicable, loathsome, criminal fraud!” But Kubrick’s a consummate ironist, and he can’t help but see the dark humor of a woman so blinded by love that she stops protecting her only family.

By this point Kubrick had taken to putting down Spartacus, but there’s little denying that the earlier film taught him a valuable lesson: namely, that a cast need not follow the script to the letter, and that he could reform the film entirely through careful manipulation of their performances. Kubrick told his cast to memorize their lines, then to forget them and improvise, and the result was a film that feels every bit as alive and new as what the French New Wave was doing at the time. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a game cast: James Mason, dignified but with a sly sense of snark and entitlement; Shelly Winters, a hurricane of human emotion; and Peter Sellers, one of the screen’s great comic masters and chameleons, playing a man who, much like Sellers himself, slips on whatever persona or skin benefits him for any given time.

Of course, Kubrick’s just as adept with the camera as he is working with actors. Lolita stands as a halfway point between the early Kubrick masterpieces of The Killing and Paths of Glory and the Kubrick that would revolutionize the world with Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director shows the same predilection to long, fluid tracking shots borrowed from Max Ophuls and the gorgeous use of deep focus he takes from Orson Welles, but there’s a great sense of foreboding and discomfort that comes with it. Quilty’s murder scene plays like Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux staged in Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, and Kubrick’s use of symmetry in his shots is often unnerving. Kubrick also uses deep focus to pack the film with scenes of characters making terrible mistakes by paying attention to the wrong thing- Charlotte watching handsome Humbert when she should see how he watches Lolita with her hula hoop, or Humbert at a motel, too inwardly focused to realize that Quilty is toying with him and plotting against him.

And yet the director is still playful, as seen in a gorgeous form cut as Humbert slyly insinuates his way into Lolita’s life, only for Kubrick to cut to a shot of a monster movie. Even better is a slapstick scene worthy of Chaplin as Humbert and a hotel employee try desperately to fix a cot that just won’t quite unfold the right way. And there’s a number of great sick jokes as Kubrick focuses on Sue Lyon, sexualized in a way that’s meant to make the audience deeply uncomfortable- and it works.

Most of Kubrick’s films are, to some degree, about entrapment, and Lolita is no exception. Kubrick’s roving camera is a beautiful stylistic choice, but it’s also indicative of the film’s theme of people who try, desperately, to get away from whatever comes between them and what they want. An early scene in Charlotte’s boarding home shows Humbert practically running from Charlotte, only for her to inevitably catch up with him and trap him (Mason’s expression this whole time: priceless). Charlotte’s misguided affection, while tragic, does briefly keep the man away from her daughter- it’s a classic Kubrickian three-way conflict between monster, mother, and daughter, without Charlotte ever realizing what the stakes are until it’s too late. Humbert uses this sense of entrapment to his advantage, however, after Charlotte’s accidental death, and the film becomes a tale of a monster who won’t let the true heroine of the film go. That said, she’s edging towards the sociopath who truly captured her heart- Clare Quilty, the three-way conflict now being monster vs. girl vs. monster.

Lolita is, by nature,  a tale of sexuality, but it’s also a classic Kubrickian tale of repression. When Charlotte and Humbert first meet, she notably has a cigarette-holder in her mouth, but her overt sexuality clashes with Humbert’s repressed disgust and barely hidden feelings for her daughter. Humbert’s discomfort is not only with Charlotte- it’s with the rest of humanity. When Humbert reluctantly attends a party with the Haze family, Charlotte’s friend suggests that Humbert should make his move, and further suggests that she and her husband are “broad-minded”. The look of barely-hidden contempt on Mason’s face is all too clear. Contrast that with Sellers’ Quilty, equally leery and loathsome but far better at hiding it with a nasty sense of charm.

Humbert’s repression slowly falls away as he comes closer to Lolita, but it’s clear that she’s not responsible for their sick relationship. There’s a clear flirtatiousness to Lolita, but it plays less like that of the nymphet (allow me to recover from throwing up in my mouth a bit) that Humbert sees and more like a teenage girl who knows how to wield her sexuality without understanding the consequences. She knows what Humbert wants because she’s been lusted after by plenty of men before (most notably Quilty, whom she’s clearly smitten with), but she’s still just a kid, and it’s little more than a game to her. That game grows tiresome, however, as she’s repressed herself by Humbert’s obsessive control over her every action.

This comes to the greatest recurring theme in Kubrick’s filmography- dehumanization. The film begins showing two sick men, Humbert and Quilty, at the end of their respective ropes, one boozy and messy, the other spurned by a girl he loved. There’s no doubt that their disgusting actions have brought them to ruin, and their downfalls are well-deserved considering their treatment of Charlotte and Lolita. Humbert’s cruelty towards Charlotte, his basic disregard for her humanity, is often funny, but Kubrick doesn’t admire his coldness as much as he empathizes with the messy, sad, silly individual that is Charlotte Haze.

Kubrick also shows more concern over Lolita’s escape from both odious men- she’s the put-upon heroine who manages to escape (Kubrick threw out the section in Nabokov’s book that suggests Lolita died during childbirth). She’s snotty to her mother in the way that teenagers often are, but her world truly comes crashing down as she realizes that she has no one to rely on but loathsome, manipulative Humbert, whose transformation from sly monster to pathetic monster is practically cheered at. As Lolita gains her independence and Humbert and Quilty tumble towards a sad, pathetic death, there’s hardly a sense that any of it is undeserved.

Lolita is such a rich and vital film from Kubrick that it’s almost churlish to point out how much of a mess it often is. The first half of the film is mostly masterful, but as soon as Humbert and Lolita take to the road the film becomes lumpy in rhythm and episodic to a fault. Kubrick felt that the book dragged after Humbert and Lolita got together, but the real problem is that it’s hard to make the second half of the story work cinematically- it’s heavily reliant on Humbert’s delightfully acerbic observations and the sense that he’s growing increasingly unhinged. Kubrick and company create some terrific scenes along the way, but they don’t often cohere as well as they should.

Kubrick also struggles with the material dealing directly with Lolita. Kubrick and producer James B. Harris decided that they’d best placate the censors of the time by raising Lolita’s age from 12 to 14 and casting a girl who looks much older. Lyon, 16 years old at the time, isn’t bad as Lolita, but she doesn’t quite capture the girl’s youthful spirit beyond teenage brattiness and precociousness. She feels a bit too old for the role, which is frustratingly necessary for the film to have even been made.

Kubrick also has trouble with a coda that shows Humbert and Lolita briefly meet once more some years later before Humbert’s fateful murder of Quilty. If Lyon was too old for the girlish Lolita, she’s almost comically too young for an older-but-wiser version of the girl. In the book, Lolita is still only 17 at the meeting, but Kubrick dresses Lyon in dowdy clothes and big glasses as if that’s all she needs to look older. It’s a case of a young actress playing dress up in a role that she’s theoretically the right age for. The coda isn’t completely without its bright spots, however, as there’s an indelible moment where Humbert realizes that Quilty, not he, was the love of Lolita’s life, and that he’ll never be nearly as important to her. Mason plays the scene beautifully as a man whose heartbreak finally brings him within a spitting distance of humanity. It’s a scene that’s emblematic of the film: not entirely successful, but fascinating and rich in a way that makes its biggest missteps forgivable.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.5: Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.
Grade: 74 (B+)

Paths of Glory marked the point when Stanley Kubrick became one of the most important directors of his generation, but its failure at the box office didn’t give him much clout. Kubrick and producer James B. Harris struggled finding a suitable follow-up for the next several years. Kubrick was hired by Marlon Brando to direct the western One-Eyed Jacks, but the two had strong disagreements about which direction to take the film (Brando wanted realism, Kubrick expressionism) and Kubrick was eventually fired so that Brando himself could direct. The director and Harris moved onto an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, but the two had trouble figuring out how they would get the film past the censors.
But before Kubrick and Harris could start on a script for Lolita, the director got a call from his Paths of Glory collaborator Kirk Douglas, who had just started production on a Roman epic called Spartacus. The original director, Anthony Mann, had finished the opening scenes, but Douglas wanted Kubrick, and he felt both that Mann was intimidated by the size of the picture and that Mann was trying to get a subtler style of acting from the brash Douglas. Douglas fired Mann and gave Kubrick a week to prepare for Spartacus.
What happened next is tricky: Kubrick was still a relative novice, a 30-something year old kid with two phenomenal but unpopular films under his belt. The director and Douglas often clashed over the script and the style of the film- Douglas wanted a noble hero’s journey, Kubrick a more troubled protagonist. Because he was the bigger star, Douglas got his way, and the notoriously controlling Kubrick was unhappy during production. When the film was recut to appease the censors, Kubrick was further irritated. He would later speak badly of the film, saying that he was working with a dumb script and a controlling Hollywood machine. Some of Kubrick’s complaints about the production are understandable: it doesn’t feel much like a Kubrick film. But it’s still rousing entertainment, filled with proof of Kubrick’s craftsmanship and his skill at working with actors.
Spartacus (Douglas) was born a slave to a mining colony, but he’s rebellious by nature. When Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) comes to the colony looking for potential gladiators, he’s struck by Spartacus and takes him in. Spartacus yearns for freedom all while falling for Varinia (Jean Simmons), one of Batiatus’ slave girls. When the powerful senator Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier) tries to take Varinia away, Spartacus starts a slave uprising, reunites with Varinia, and starts a march with a gladiator/slave army towards Rome. Meanwhile, the power-hungry Crassus manipulates his way to controlling Rome while the pragmatic Gracchus (Charles Laughton) does battle in the senate with him.
First thing’s first: no, Spartacus doesn’t look or feel like a Kubrick movie. It’s an impressively crafted movie, but there’s little to separate Kubrick’s contributions to the early scenes shot by seasoned pro Anthony Mann. Hell, there’s little to separate it stylistically from the other big Roman epics of the era- the film was seen as a response by Douglas against not being cast in Ben-Hur, but the two films are awfully similar. They both have casts of thousands, impressive battle scenes, gorgeous production and costume design, a three-hour plus running time (complete with road show presentation and, here, a great Saul Bass opening credits sequence). They’re both less auteur theory and more Old Hollywood. 
One could easily find traces of Kubrick if one squinted hard enough: there are certain visual echoes of Paths of Glory (characters speaking of the value of humanity, a checkered senate floor that resembles the earlier film’s chateau). The climactic battle sequence uses drum beats to mark edits, as did Paths of Glory. And certain Kubrick themes do come out: man’s capacity for cruelty and dehumanization, the brutality of war and theatrical violence (particularly in the early gladiatorial scenes), and the powerlessness that comes with entrapment. But most of these ideas are only on the surface, they’re delivered without Kubrick’s brand of bitter irony (it’s very straightforward indeed), and they still speak more to Douglas and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s interests than Kubrick.
Spartacus was revolutionary, in its own way, though not in the traditional Kubrick fashion of reinventing cinema. Trumbo was part of the Hollywood Blacklist after his ties to the Communist Party came out during the HUAC hearings. Trumbo had worked during his blacklisted days, but usually uncredited (Roman Holiday) or under a pseudonym (The Brave One, for which he won an Oscar he couldn’t collect). Douglas had read and loved the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast (another blacklisted man), and he hired the notoriously quick-writing Trumbo to write Spartacus. Douglas had been the first to break the blacklist, and the film was protested by noted Hollywood conservatives like John Wayne and Hedda Hopper, who were likely instrumental in keeping Spartacus from getting Oscar-nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (though the film did win four Oscars, including Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov). This was a risky film, in short, both for Trumbo’s involvement and the political connotations of the script.
Spartacus is born into slavery, a marked man, and the fellow gladiators don’t want anything to do with each other (“I don’t want to know your name…I may have to kill you”). When Spartacus leads an uprising, he speaks against the Romans, who are “rich and fat for what they didn’t work for”. The senate, meanwhile, is wildly corrupt, but in the words of Gracchus, “a little republican corruption and some freedom” is preferable to “the dictatorship of Crassus”. Gracchus is a man of the people who will say what he needs to in order to maintain power (on gods: “Privately I believe in none of them, publicly I believe in all of them”). 
Trumbo loads the script with anti-HUAC subtext- the famous “I am Spartacus” scene plays as a moving tribute to the men who refuse to name names in order to save themselves, their crucifixion now literal rather than figurative. The film is also filled with allusions to the Holocaust, with the Romans standing in for the Nazis as Crassus walks over the Jews slaughtered in battle. In a scene cut from the film’s original release, Crassus reveals his bisexuality and his feelings towards Tony Curtis’ Antoninus, who will soon reject him and join Spartacus. Trumbo’s well-rounded characters- the noble but almost painfully stubborn Spartacus, the compromised but decent Gracchus, the cowardly sycophant Batiatus, the power-hungry and paranoid Crassus- make these political connections more than just breast-beating. Spartacus isn’t particularly better than Ben-Hur, but it is a whole lot smarter.
What of Kubrick, then? If nothing else, Spartacus is a valuable training lesson for Kubrick on multiple fronts. Kubrick vowed from this point forward to only work on films he had control on, which he did till the day he died. The film also let him experiment with using music on set to heighten the emotions of performances, and the battle sequences (very bloody for 1960 standards, although much of it was initially cut) are very impressive, showing Kubrick’s gifts at directing action and war that would pay off in Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket.
The film is particularly important in the way it taught Kubrick how to work with actors: Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov were all annoyed at how Kirk Douglas hired them by making their roles seem bigger than they were, not to mention miffed that Douglas was exerting so much control. After all, the three of them were all talented writers and directors in their own right. Kubrick, in a shrewd move, let them improvise in rehearsals or rewrite much of their own dialogue, which he would later let influence what he actually shot. It was a move that would later influence many of his more distinctive films (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining). Spartacus is mostly a Kubrick movie only in name, and yet it’s still one of his most formative experiences, and Kubrick fans would be wrong to dismiss it.

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.4: Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 95 (A)

Stanley Kubrick is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and Paths of Glory is the film that, more than anything else, put him on the map. The tale of a miscarriage of justice during World War I, Paths of Glory is a case of a star, Kirk Douglas, standing by a story and a filmmaker he believed in. In Douglas’ words, “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it”. This is a story that Kubrick had to make, too, and it’s surely a great showcase for his technical bravura, his talent with actors, and bitter sense of irony. But it’s also the best case that the popular reading of Kubrick as a cold, unfeeling man with no sense of humanism isn’t just vastly oversimplified- it’s dead wrong.

1916: Europe is at war. Frustrated over the lack of progress in trench warfare, French General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) convinces General Paul Mireau (George MacReady) to order his men to charge against the German “Ant Hill”. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) knows that this is a fool’s game and that most of his men will be killed in the assault, but he has no choice but to order them forward. The attack is a failure: the men who leave the trenches are cut to ribbons, the survivors retreat, and several men, seeing the futility of the effort, do not charge. Enraged, General Mireau orders three innocent soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey) to be tried and executed for cowardice. A lawyer in civilian life, Dax valiantly defends the men, but he knows that they stand no chance.

The Killing proved Kubrick to be a judicious and intelligent filmmaker, but Paths of Glory ups the ambition and the bitter sense of irony. The film opens with an omniscient narrator informing the audience that the soldiers are at a quagmire, with thousands dead…and Generals Broulard and Mireau are in a gorgeous French chateau, sipping cognac in a pleasant atmosphere. Kubrick shows his mastery as a visual storyteller: depending on the closeness of the shot on General Broulard, he’s either speaking plainly and familiarly with Mireau (close shot, intimacy) or giving him an order (medium shot).

It’s a game of manipulation on Broulard’s part, but at least the two men have room to move and breathe as they talk, the camera roving about as they walk around the room. It’s done in part as a tribute to the recently deceased Max Ophuls, the great German director known for his fluid tracking shots, but it’s also a stark contrast to what we see when Kubrick cuts to the trenches. There’s no room to move, and there’s a sense of gritty realism as soldiers live in dirt and hold their wounds. And while Mireau moved freely and fluidly in the chateau, here a reverse tracking shot shows him dominating the camera, bluntly ordering men to their deaths. Futhermore, Kubrick’s knowledge of the psychology of movement comes through: the generals move from left to right, signifying dominance. The soldiers, as they climb the anthill, move right to left in a move that makes them look like they’re fighting an uphill battle- which they are in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical one. Kubrick takes a remove to the situation: he knows this is bad, but he’ll let us figure that out for ourselves.

For the trials themselves, Kubrick portrays them as an absolute farce of justice, with the soldiers and Dax as men without a chance while the generals remain cold, removed, and in total control. The camera roves around as prosecutor Major Saint-Auben (Richard Anderson) questions the soldiers- he’s in control, he has freedom. The soldiers, meanwhile, are stuck in a corner of the frame, marginalized (note to Tom Hooper, a big Kubrick fan: this is how that’s supposed to work), and cannot move unless given permission. When Dax pleads the soldiers’ case, Kubrick uses a wide shot, showing a man pleading a case to what’s essentially an empty room. The chateau’s floor, meanwhile, is checkered like a chessboard. That speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Kubrick had shown his genius in casting in The Killing, and Paths of Glory is an even better case. For the generals, manipulative and removed from the realities of war, Kubrick casts the regal MacReady, Menjou and Anderson as MacReady’s sycophant Major Saint-Auben to show us the coldness of their characters. He casts everymen Meeker, Turkel, and Carey as the three persecuted soldiers- there’s something relatable to the men, as if we’d meet them in everyday life, and our sympathies go towards them as they’re put through hell. Douglas, for his part, was never better than as the righteous Dax, a man whose pragmatism belies a tough-minded humanism. His outrage at man’s capacity for cruelty mirrors Kubrick’s own, and one can’t simply dismiss Kubrick as unfeeling if that righteous disgust exists. He’s more of a Dax than a Broulard.

There’s a sense of entrapment to the whole film, something Kubrick had hinted at in earlier films but brings full-on here. In the trenches, Dax marches on showing dominance, but he knows that there’s nowhere to go- if the men leave the trench, they’ll be killed. If they don’t, they’ll be seen as cowards. The look of grim determination on his face shows a man in a moral quagmire, with no breathing room whatsoever. It’s even worse for the three soldiers, decent men all thrown into a dungeon, chosen either because they were disliked (Carey), they had evidence against a commanding officer (Meeker), or by chance of a drawn lot (Turkel). Kubrick’s use of chiaroscuro is particularly effective here: the light outside shows just how cut off from freedom and from life they really are.

Kubrick had dealt with violence before as well, but the subject of war brings out the take-no-prisoners attitude in him. Gone is The Killing’s often fun sense of tough-guy fights and shootings. This is absolute hell: men in the trenches are practically falling apart from their injuries (as much as a 1957 film would allow, anyway). In one memorable sequence, Meeker’s Corporal Paris and another soldier, Lejeune, are ordered to accompany drunken Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) to the front. There, Roget accidentally kills Lejeune with a grenade and retreats to leave Paris to die. Lejeune’s body is burnt and bloodied, and the zoom in on his corpse has a heavy psychological effect on the audience. And yet Roget blames Paris, just days away from being tried for cowardice, for his fatal mistake.

Kubrick’s use of theatrical violence is horrifying as well. The charge towards the German Ant Hill is destined to fail, and it would be a hollow victory even if it succeeded- the war is still going on, and this isn’t going to change much of anything. But to satisfy the general’s egos and need for something to show, they’re forced forward. When the attack inevitably fails, General Mireau orders three men killed as a way to cover up his mistake- it wasn’t that it was an insurmountable challenge, you see, but the failure of a group of cowards, all diminished by Mireau as having “skim milk in their veins instead of blood”. Dax’s response: “it’s the reddest milk I’ve ever seen”.

That sense of dehumanization runs throughout Paths of Glory. It’s perhaps the defining theme in Kubrick’s work, and here it’s a case of character destruction and dehumanization by those in power in order to control. An early scene shows Mireau slapping a shell-shocked soldier, calling him a coward and claiming that “There’s no such thing as shell shock!”. He later calls the man a baby and refers to the men as stupid. The whole film works as a game, with Dax defending any sense of humanity the men have by calling their mistakes human, not stupid. Mireau later orders an artillery fire on his own regiment when the soldiers refuse to charge- the sense that they’re only pawns in his game is unmistakable.

Mireau is hardly the worst of the bunch, though. General Broulard masks his own inhumanity through genial mannerisms and politeness, but he’s a true manipulator, one who convinces the power-hungry Mireau to try to take the Ant Hill even as Mireau knows it is impossible. There’s a great symmetry to the film as Kubrick shows the inhumanity of all the order, particularly in a late scene between Dax and Broulard as the latter tries to manipulate Dax the way he did Mireau earlier. Dax isn’t having it. He’s not Broulard’s boy, and the audience’s righteous outrage comes through in Dax’s rebuke of the man: “…you’re a degenerate and sadistic old man, and I will go to HELL before I apologize to you again!”.  It’s hardly subtle, but it’s supremely effective. Paths of Glory beats us down with all of this, making us, like the idealistic Dax, “ashamed to be part of the human race”.

That bitter sense of irony courses throughout the film’s veins- it’s an anti-war film called Paths of Glory, for god’s sake. Generals order soldiers to their deaths while wishing them good luck. They promise relief to men about to die. They remark on the cowardice of men as they sit behind desks. They try men who either didn’t have a chance to go over the trench or men who had been previously cited for bravery. Broulard claims the executions are good for troop morale, while Mireau remarks that the men die wonderfully after accusing them of cowardice. Officers are protected in spite of their evils, and even when Mireau is given his comeuppance, it comes out of what Broulard believes is a power grab by Dax rather than a move for justice. Broulard can’t even understand it- he believes the men inferior, subhuman, monstrous creatures.

And yet in the film’s final coup, Kubrick shows it isn’t the case. It’s been said that every film Kubrick made was a response to the previous one. Where The Killing showed how Killer’s Kiss could have been done better, Paths of Glory plays as an opposite of sorts to The Killing. Rather than a meticulous plan that fails, this is one that was doomed to fail. The violence, rather than exhilarating, is punishing. The motives of the major planners are completely cold and clinical rather than noble or neutral. And the ending affirms humanity rather than negating it- Broulard has dismissed the soldiers, and as they gather in a café with a captured German girl (Susanne Christian, Kubrick’s future wife), Dax sees that he may have been right. They jeer. They call at her and sexualize her. Kubrick uses a wide lens to show their inhumanity. And yet, as she tearfully sings a German folk song, the men quiet down. Kubrick’s closes in on their faces as they sadly hum her melancholy song, many of them moved to tears. It’s a cruel world, but man is not irredeemable. 

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