7/12/2016

Summer Moviethon 2016: Fear and Desire

July 10: #27, Fear and Desire

Well, we have nothing to lose but our futures.”

Fear and Desire isn't a good film, although we should be thankful that it allowed Stanley Kubrick to go from photographer to director and get some rookie mistakes out of the way with a script that wasn't going to be exceptional no matter what he had done with it.

With a simple “soldiers behind enemy lines” story, the setup isn't bad. However, the same can't be said about the characters, who are largely either completely dull (Kenneth Harp's Lt. Corby) or absolutely ridiculous (Pvt. Sidney).

Sidney in particular goes from a little frazzled to batshit crazy in 0.3 seconds, deciding to act out as a dumbass weirdo rapist the moment he's left to babysit a random captive girl that the group finds. The best character among the group is Frank Silvera's Sgt. Mac, who showcases a lone island of personality in a sea of completely flat dialogue.

A lot of the directorial choices are real head-scratchers. There are some really bad voice-overs during an early montage of the soldiers walking, some extremely awkward and unnecessary quick cuts as the soldiers discuss their predicament in the beginning of the film and even flashbacks at one point to stuff we literally saw five minutes before.

However, Kubrick shows off his potential in one particular scene where the soldiers ambush a stew shack staffed by a few enemy soldiers. As the men dispatch their enemies, Kubrick gives us close-ups of hands gripping at food and then slowly relaxing, as well as silent faces in the aftermath of the skirmish. It's a cleverly filmed sequence in a movie that otherwise can't really be recommended, except for its historical importance as Kubrick's first film.

Grade: D+

Summer Moviethon 2016: Killer's Kiss

July 10: #26, Killer's Kiss

Well anyway, I guess the whole thing is silly...know a girl for two days and fall in love.”

Stanley Kubrick's second feature film Killer's Kiss fakes out the viewer as it appears to be another film noir exercise where nothing works out for anybody until pretty late in the movie. Still, the black and white film shows off Kubrick making excellent use of light and shadows and even filming a pretty visceral low-angle boxing sequence, to boot. Of particular note in the fight is how Kubrick captures the disorientation of a downed fighter.

However, the film's acting and dialogue are not particularly memorable, and are downright bad in scenes such as an early moment where female lead Irene Kane (playing Gloria, lead character Davey's neighbor) argues with her employer/lover, the nefarious Vincent Rapallo (played by Frank Silvera).

For the sake of the film's very fast pace, Davey and Irene fall in love literally within a day or two, which Davey himself even mentions as peculiar a couple of times as the film proceeds. Davey is then instantly willing to risk it all for his new girlfriend, getting himself embroiled in serious trouble due to a misunderstanding that all starts with a stolen scarf on the street.

It's all a little silly, but Kubrick manages to shine with imaginative shots such as a wide shot of Vincent's henchmen advancing toward a cornered man in the darkness and a long, dark alley shot during a chase scene that gives way to a shot looking down from the fire escape as Davey scampers up it to get away from his pursuers. There's some clever, if obvious, symbolism as well (the “Watch Your Step” sign that's in the foreground midway through the film as Irene confronts her boss).

At the end, everything gets tied with a neat little bow and Killer's Kiss becomes a film that isn't bad, but is only really notable because of what Kubrick would do after it.

Grade: C+

Summer Moviethon: The Killing

July 9: #25, The Killing

"Now, we just have to board the plane with this cartoonishly large briefcase of money. What could go wrong?"

I was going to watch ten Kubrick films and then decided that I might as well watch his first three, as well. If anything, it would give me a chance to get back on pace a bit since they're all 85 minutes or less. Kubrick owed me that at least after I sat through several three-hour epics in a little over a week.

The killing is a black and white heist drama made right before Paths to Glory. It's also a good exercise in film noir as hard lessons are learned all around about such poor choices as marrying above your station and trusting anyone whatsoever.

The Killing sets a brisk pace, putting all the characters in place and setting the wheels in motion for a daring racetrack heist very quickly. Among the actors, you get a caricature of a 1950s gang leader played by Sterling Hayden and George, a cowardly husband played as wooden on purpose by Elisha Cook. The character who stands out most is the delightfully snarky Sherry Peatty, who is played exceptionally by Marie Windsor. Some of the best moments in the film are when she's casting shade at her hapless husband or manipulating him with ease.

You get a lot of old-timey detective film dialogue, but that's okay as it's to be expected for the time period and genre. What is a bit of a letdown is the rather weak ending, which relies on some really stupid luck and ridiculous coincidences even by noir standards.

Kubrick is coming into his own in this one, as he stages shots carefully, such as when he films an upward angle of the crew answering the hideout door so that you can't see who's barging in when the door opens. In that sequence, which is where plans really start to unravel, there's also a great moment where Kubrick goes into first person perspective as the hideout's lone survivor surveys the wreckage, breathing heavily. Overall, The Killing is an enjoyable, if rather forgettable heist drama.

Grade: B

Summer Moviethon 2016: Eyes Wide Shut

July 8: #24, Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise is up all night to get lucky.

First, let's just point out that there's no possible way that Eyes Wide Shut could have met expectations for many of those who saw it. It was filmed 12 years after Stanley Kubrick's masterful Full Metal Jacket and was released after his death, so everyone knew it was his last film.

Even acknowledging that, the film is a bit of a mess. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise took time away from being the world's most uninteresting couple to play the world's most uninteresting couple in this film, with Kidman doing what she can to show up her hubby with some really bad overacting in the few scenes she manages to be in. It doesn't help that she appears in most of the film either stoned or drunk, nor does it help that the script is adamant about portraying nearly every woman in the film as one-note temptresses.

Well, there is that apparently pivotal argument scene early in the film where Kidman gets to stop auditioning for the role of Catwoman (seriously, watch her flirting at the party...so bad) and instead gets to play the role of the stereotypical Woman Who Just Wants to Argue. You get to marvel as she hysterically jumps to conclusions and erratically constructs terrible strawman arguments and Cruise, as the bored, rich doctor she's married to, plays the role of the husband who just doesn't get what his wife's deal is.

Besides the way the women are written in the film, which is decidedly 20th century, the plot is pretty bad. Kidman's character had a crush on a sailor she saw one time and thought, “Hey, if I had the chance, I'd probably bone him.” She tells Cruise this in a ridiculously drawn out story and gives her husband all the motivation he needs to go out for the rest of the night and try his damndest to get laid.

Oh, but let me save you an hour and a half...Cruise doesn't get laid. And it's not because he has a change of heart or realizes what a dipshit he's being, either. It's because ridiculous circumstances conspire to interrupt every chance that he gets to get some nookie. From timely phone calls to positive HIV tests, everything in the world seems to be happening only to deprive Cruise of dipping his noodle in some random vagina.

So what you have is basically Harold & Kumar Cheat on Their Wives, as Cruise's misadventures lead him to a ridiculous sex party-slash-Freemasons meeting that derails his quest for poontang and instead leaves him fearing for his life. Only then, when he realizes that he almost got killed over his need to get revenge on his wife for fantasizing about another guy, does he see that he doesn't want to cheat on her after all and would instead like to go do some Christmas shopping after telling her everything about his night on the town.

"I wonder if this cloak is hiding my raging boner."
You also get to enjoy some extremely annoying repeated piano accompaniment that is supposed to be minimalist and threatening and tense, but instead is grating and unimaginative and pretentious. Someone who liked this film would probably jump my case and talk about all the symbolism involved. Yes, there's plenty of that. Ominous red doors, headlines on a newspaper that say “Lucky to be Alive,” etc. There's a lot to examine here, just as with most Kubrick films.

That doesn't mean that it's enjoyable entertainment, though, and a lot of the symbolism is thrust in your face with such obvious vigor that any interest you may have in deciphering it quickly disappears. Kubrick films tend to be great because they work both on the surface level as simple entertainment with a clear theme and as deeper looks into more complex messages. This one doesn't work on that surface level, as it just comes off as a cautionary morality tale where the lead character gets to safely explore his wild side for a night before deciding that nope, a boring marriage isn't so bad after all.

Grade: D+

Summer Moviethon 2016: Barry Lyndon

July 6: #23, Barry Lyndon

It's Forrest Gump meets neo-noir in an 18th century period drama.

Barry Lyndon tells the story of cousin-lover, womanizer, gambler and ne'er-do-well Redmond Barry as he floats, fumbles, fibs, and fucks his way through a life where he stumbles into opportunity after opportunity in a way that can only be surpassed by Forrest Gump himself.

Unlike Forrest Gump, Barry is not meant to be a good person. Played by Ryan O'Neal, Barry is unabashedly imperfect, and even after three hours, you may not feel like you or anyone in the film ever truly knew who he really was. The only thing I feel like I know for sure about Barry is that he was always motivated by purely selfish means. Whether it was his lust for his cousin, self preservation, the search for adventure or the drive for wealth, Barry makes a string of unpredictable decisions throughout the film based on one thing - what he wants at the time.

That's not to say that Barry Lyndon is not a good film. No, because you see, it's not as if Stanley Kubrick was unaware that he was filming the story of a complete scoundrel. But Kubrick wants us to see that even a person as simple as Barry is still pretty complex, and that neither the selfishness of his scams or the love he has for his child later in the film are as pure as we might assume.

As Barry goes through his life and finds himself in a pretty good place, he eventually loses it all through events that aren't intended to shock or surprise us. In fact, the narrator spoils the major events of the film, making it clear that it's not what happens to Barry that's important. The film even avoids any kind of simple moral by refusing to make Barry Lyndon a karma fantasy where a selfish person gets theirs in the end. After all, plenty of good people are hurt in Barry's wake, and Barry makes out pretty good at the end, in some ways.

If anything, Barry Lyndon is a rejection of such simple comforts as karma, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse, since I also abhor the concept. In the world of Barry Lyndon, bad stuff happens to good people, good stuff happens to bad people, and everything in between. Unfortunate situations are thrust upon some folks and at other times, people suffer or profit from their own choices, regardless of where they may fit on any morality scale.

Oh, come on, like you never played a harmless game of "dig the ribbon out of the boob cleavage" with your cousin.
It's that emphasis on complexity, which continues in scenes such as Barry's last duel with his stepson, where you can appreciate this film for refusing to tie anything with a neat little bow. There's also a lot to like in O'Neal's performance in a film that he really had to carry. His love interests are a succession of interchangeable blank slates, which is perfect because it fits Barry's view of them.

At first, I didn't like O'Neal much in the role, but he really grew on me as I realized that he was really playing the character appropriately. The narrative decisions make sense when you understand Barry, too. Things that can be seen as noble gestures, such as Barry's willingness to let the stepson who he wronged best him, become more clear when you consider that Barry simply appreciated the boy's determination because his idealized version of himself included the same quality.

Still, a good portion of the film feels like Kubrick really buying into his own genius. It's his most masturbatory film besides 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that's saying something. He gives us some beautiful shots of the Irish countryside in what is often a visually striking film. He also engages in the same excess that the lead character does from time to time in a film that didn't really need to be three hours long. Like its protagonist, Barry Lyndon is flawed, yet memorable.

Grade: B+

Summer Moviethon 2016: The Shining

July 6: #22, The Shining

Red rum. Red rum. Red rum.”

I've seen The Shining a few times, so this time around I watched the international version, which is actually trimmed down from the US version but is said to be the one that Stanley Kubrick prefers. It seems strange for a guy that gleefully made us watch monkeys hop around for 20 minutes in 2001: A Space Odyssey to be so willing to edit his work, but okay. I looked at the stuff that was cut out and aside from one line between Jack and the bartender in the hotel, I could see his point.

The main difference with the international version is that with some of the fat cut out from early in the film, we go from, “Hmm...this doesn't seem right” to “What the fuck GET OUT OF THERE LADY” in much less time. I don't think it hurts the film, but your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Shining is one of my favorite Kubrick films because it really shows what a genius he was and how he could have been a great director in any genre. He effortlessly builds tension right from the opening credits with some really nice establishing shots of the Torrance family driving past the lake in their humble little car, not knowing what they're in for. A creepy feeling permeates just about every moment of the film, from the low-angle shots following Danny Torrance on his big wheel rides through the hotel to Jack's hallucinations in the bar and ballroom later on.

Kubrick really excels at filling the open spaces of the hotel with a sense of dread, as you feel like every room in the hotel may hold some sort of terrible secret, not just room 237. Classic shots such as the two little girls in their dresses (and the alternating shot of their dead bodies strewn about the hall) and the cascading river of blood from the elevator are complemented by creepy little touches such as, oh, the natural insanity of Jack Nicholson's eyebrows.

Creepy child actors are a mainstay in modern horror, especially with the flood of PG-13 paranormal flicks we've seen in the last couple of decades. They all owe some royalties to Danny Lloyd, who nails it as one of the creepiest kids in horror history as Danny Torrance. Danny's alter-ego Tony and the believable way in which he reacts to his heightened awareness of the threats within the hotel are essential to the film's success.

The same is true of Shelley Duvall, who was quite literally subjected to psychological torture by Kubrick during the filming of the movie. Kubrick famously made Duvall perform over 100 takes of the scene in which she tearfully confronts Jack with a baseball bat, which is said to be a world record for a scene that contains spoken dialogue. He also supposedly told the other members of the cast and crew to shun her so she'd feel isolated throughout the filming.

Now, you may be like some of the detractors of The Shining, which include the book's author, Stephen King. King wanted a more assertive Wendy Torrance, and yes, Duvall is a complete mess throughout. But that's what Kubrick wanted and I don't think you can say it's unbelievable for the time period and situation.

"Winter is coming."
You've either seen The Shining or you haven't, and if you haven't, you really, really need to. If you have, we all know how it goes down and Kubrick and the small cast handle every part of it to near perfection. Kubrick's choices here don't seem as self-congratulatory as in some of his other more showy films, and we still get wonderful work such as the seamless transition between Jack staring at the model of the hedge maze to an overhead shot of the maze itself, with Wendy and Danny in it. This and Full Metal Jacket represent Kubrick at the peak of his powers.

Grade: A

Summer Moviethon 2016: Spartacus

July 5: #21, Spartacus

In Rome, dignity shortens life even more surely than disease.”

At 197 minutes long, Spartacus is not for the feint of heart. I wasn't exactly pumped to spend two movies' worth of time watching one film that I didn't expect to have aged well when I'm already far behind pace in my goal to watch 150 movies in 90 days, but I set out to watch every Stanley Kubrick film and to do so, I had to watch Kirk Douglas chew scenery for three-plus hours.

Spartacus is every bit a predecessor to later epics like Braveheart and Gladiator, where one brave man who just happens to have a chiseled jaw and movie-star looks rises above the other thousands of people who share the exact plight to lead an epic struggle for justice and/or freedom.

It also is a strange film for Kubrick to helm, looking back now. At the time, Kubrick had done Paths of Glory and seemed well-suited for the task, but after seeing his work in the 70s and 80s, having him film the 1960 equivalent of a summer blockbuster seems very strange.

Kubrick wasn't allowed to have the control over this film that he always enjoyed having with his other productions, and it shows. While Kubrick takes advantage of the setting to display some nice cinematography in the early slave scenes, much of the film is pretty paint-by-numbers. This film lacks the biting satire and thought-provoking themes of his other work, although the story of slaves revolting against their former owners and Rome itself fits well within Kubrick's other work that criticizes authority figures for treating the “little people” with disregard.

If you didn't like Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, you'll despise him in Spartacus, as he really cranks up the grandstanding in this one. Although Douglas can veer towards insufferable in the big moments where he seems to be reaching for an Oscar nomination, he succeeds when provided with moments of levity and to a lesser extent when forced to build a romance from scratch with fellow slave Varinia, played by Jean Simmons, who is pretty but also a blank slate here.

Oh, and you also get to see Kirk Douglas look like a sunburned, leathery version of Marv from Sin City
There's a lot to love about Spartacus, though. There's some really witty writing, such as when the delightfully slimy Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) orders a slave to serve “the second best wine...no, the best, but small goblets!” for the arrival of Crassus. Sure, the slaves become expert fighters by alternatively jumping over and ducking under logs, but we can forgive that, because Kubrick's shots of thousands of slave soldiers migrating through Rome are wonderfully done, particularly when considering that something so epic as those moments or the huge battle later on would be largely done with CGI now.

Kubrick manages to break out of his constraints long enough to make some nifty directorial choices, too. The best moment that comes to mind is when corresponding army leaders Spartacus and Crassus make their speeches to their soldiers, with the speeches being interspersed with one another to contrast the styles and motivations of the two men. An eerie trip through the field of bodies left in the wake of the battle also makes an impression.

Spartacus is far from perfect, but it does tell a great story that affects the viewer, even after all this time. It's a long trip, but it's a worthy one.

Grade: B

Summer Moviethon 2016: Paths of Glory

July 3: #20, Paths of Glory

I'm not afraid of dying tomorrow, only of getting killed.”

Filmed in the very early part of Stanley Kubrick's career, Paths of Glory is a surprisingly tight, concise film that like all of Kubrick's war films, doesn't focus on the macro-level of war but instead zooms in on the fallout of a particular conflict.

This one is similar to Dr. Strangelove in that it serves as an indictment of military leaders for viewing their soldiers as little more than pawns. This is a point that Kubrick really hits you over the head with, as General Georges Broulard plans what is essentially a reckless suicide mission where by even his own estimation, 60% of the French soldiers involved will die.

Broulard leaves it to General Mireau to go from there, and Mireau's initial resistance to the plan is washed away when a possible promotion is hinted at. As Mireau, George Macready is an outstanding villain, mostly because he balances the coward's mentality of wanting others to take the blame for his actions with the egotist's belief that he deserves to be held above such criticism. Mireau hides behind palatable defenses based on patriotism, duty, and courage instead of allowing the truth of his own cowardice and ambition to show.

Mireau's foil is Kirk Douglas as the brave, much-beloved Regiment Colonel Dax, who fearlessly leads the doomed charge when the time comes. He also takes it upon himself to defend the men from three companies who are arbitrarily picked to answer to charges of cowardice when they and their peers stop advancing when the feebleness of their efforts in the battle become clear.

Douglas plays it pretty straight as the strong-jawed, prototypical 1950s film hero, and his performance mostly works. He gets a moment later in the movie to raise his voice in righteous defiance and relishes it just as much as you'd expect. It's a performance that seems pretty dated and pandering now, but it's well-suited to the film. The movie's battle sequence, which was not filmed with a big budget and hasn't really aged well, doesn't really hold the film back, either.

"Well, I've got my gym teacher whistle and my tiny pistol. I'm ready to storm the hill!"
Overall, Paths of Glory makes a lot of points similar to Dr. Strangelove, and even if the latter was the better film, it's an excellent movie in its own right. The three doomed soldiers hold pivotal roles and play them well, even though Timothy Carey's Private Ferol is way over-the-top at times. You still feel for the condemned trio and Kubrick uses sympathetic directing to really make their plights hit home when the time comes. This was the film where you can really see the type of career Kubrick was going to have.

Grade: A-

Summer Moviethon 2016: Lolita (1962)

July 2: #19, Lolita (1962)

Or, Next on Jerry Springer: I Love My Stepdad, Or, Roman Polanski's Favorite Kubrick Film

Let's cut to the chase: Lolita is loooooonnnnng. Yes, a lot of Kubrick's films are long, but perhaps more than any of them, Lolita feels excessively long. That's just one of its flaws, along with an extremely annoying collection of performances by Peter Sellers (who was really good in Dr. Strangelove, which is also the name of the character he seemingly debuts when he appears as the mysterious psychologist here), and the fact that Kubrick was hamstrung by censorship that wouldn't allow him to tell the story in the way that the book apparently does.

Lolita, of course, is the story of a grown-ass man who falls in love with a very young teenage girl, despite being a 40-something college professor himself. After seeing the young Lolita in her bathing suit during a tour of a house where Lolita's mother is seeking to rent out a bedroom, Humbert decides to rent the room despite the Mom coming onto him quite aggressively.

The film contains some pretty amusing innuendos. Sure, Kubrick couldn't show Humbert and Lolita kiss (they probably shouldn't have cast an actual 14-year-old to play Lolita, even though Sue Lyon is pretty good throughout), but he tries to make up for it when Humbert says that he thinks it was Lolita's mother that it was “her cherry pies” that made him want to rent the room. There's also a strong insinuation that Lolita's mom is down for some wife-swapping.

The best line in the film comes when Humbert has insanely decided to marry Lolita's mother just so he can stick around and be in her life a little longer, only to be faced with the sad reality of having to fulfill his husbandly duties. Charlotte tells Humbert that she loves him so much that when he holds her, she goes “as limp as a noodle.” Humbert deadpans back, “I know the feeling.”

"Who you gonna call? Child Lusters!"
The film starts with the aftermath of the situation and goes from there, which is a good way to go. It leaves you with a mystery to piece together and the resolution is pretty good, too. The evil actor angle is really silly and everything probably could have played out without it.

I mentioned that Kubrick wasn't able to be very faithful to the book, which is apparently much more explicit, but in some ways, that works. I like that Lolita doesn't really do much to spur Humbert on early in the movie, because it places the blame squarely where it belongs – on Humbert for being a creeper. It's better than in films like The Crush, where a girl who looks like she could pass for 18 flirts non-stop with the male lead and ends up undermining the whole thing and making it a “evil seductive teen” story instead of a “weird 40-year-old creeper with an obsession” story.

In this salacious scene from Lolita, a 40-year-old man watches a teenager hula hoop. BAN THIS FILTH!
 However, there's a very abrupt shift when Humbert picks his new step-daughter up from Camp Climax (yes, really) and she talks to him like they're an item. It's the kind of scene that sticks out like a sore thumb becaue none of what came before led organically to it. It feels like an earlier scene where the two become closer was cut or changed and the car ride was left in, even though it no longer makes sense. Still, it's an entertaining film, there's a thought-provoking message here about the danger of getting what you want and it's cool to see Kubrick stretching his legs in the early stages of his career.

Grade: B

Summer Moviethon 2016: Dr. Strangelove

July 2: #18, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"

There's a lot to love about Dr. Strangelove, which quickly sets itself up with one tasty Cold War-era hook: a team of bombers have been told by the madman General Ripper to let loose with an atomic bomb attack that will decimate Russia and start a nuclear war.

From then, the movie essentially takes place in three locations: the Washington, D.C. Pentagon war room, Ripper's military base, and in one of the bombers complying with Ripper's “Wing Attack Plan R” orders. The use of the three settings is great, as are the acting performances by Sterling Hayden's Ripper, George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson, and many others.

What makes this film such an effective dark comedy is that it explores how the fail-safes and procedures that were put in place to help leaders feel secure during a paranoid time actually seal their doom. Ripper is the only one who knows the code to address the fleet, and he won't let anyone know what it is so they can change the orders. No one can get on base to get Ripper to talk to the president on the phone, because Ripper has instructed his men to shoot anyone who approaches, even the sneaky Russians who he says may be pretending to be US soldiers.

Ripper wants the US to feel forced into going all-in with the attack since it can't be stopped anyway, eviscerating Russia in the process. The president telephones his Russian counterpart in a very funny scene only to find out that Russia has its own fail-safe that will cause trouble – a doomsday protocol that can't be disabled and will essentially nuke the world if they are attacked.

And there's your Kubrickian critique: it's the folly of our leaders and the bureaucracy and protocol that only serve to make a farce of even the most serious situations. It's everywhere in this film, such as in the war room, where there are dozens of people who never even speak. Why are they all there? For the same reason that everyone has thick binders and the bombers have pages after pages of possible commands with fancy codes: because the government's answer to problems is always to add more. More nukes, more officials in the war room, more protocol, more bombers.

The satire works on an analytical level and even on a funny-ha ha level, such as when the airborne soldiers are given their survival kits, complete with tiny combination Russian translation book and Bibles. Names such as General Ripper, “Bat” Guano, Major Kong, and President Merkin Muffley may be a little on the nose, but they add a little amusement factor, as well.

General Ripper, shown here being very concerned about your...fluids.
When the film comes to its conclusion, we find that not only have the officials and politicians not learned their lessons, but just the opposite as they quickly plot a way to make the best of a terrible situation by pursuing their own selfish interests only to immediately begin the paranoid standoff with Russia once again. Thanks to Scott's outstanding comic performance especially, Dr. Strangelove succeeds both as a Cold War cautionary tale and a very funny dark comedy.

Grade: A

Summer Moviethon 2016: Full Metal Jacket

June 29: #17, Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick explores the messy ambiguity of the Vietnam War.



Spoiler alert: I've seen this movie a dozen times and I love it. I know there's a sizable camp of folks out there who say that the basic training part of the film is better than the rest and use that criticism to knock the whole package, but I disagree. Even if it's the best part of the movie, the entire thing is still great.

But yes, the basic training part is fantastic. It's really the only war film that really takes advantage of that important part of the soldier's experience and puts it at center stage. In this case, Kubrick turns up the heat by including the kind of psychological torture that even former drill instructor R. Lee Ermey (who's amazing in this, as you already know) says wouldn't have flown in the actual Marines.

According to star Matthew Modine, Kubrick even turned the actors on each other to get a little more authenticity in their performances. Modine admitted in an interview that he and Vincent D'Onofrio (superb as Private Pyle) began to dislike each other during the shooting, despite being real life friends beforehand. But to reduce this film to just the basic training, which yeah, includes a lot of great lines from Ermey and a classic descent into madness by D'Onofrio, does it a disservice as a lot of the meat comes in the second act.

Don't feel bad, Pyle. I probably couldn't do this shit, either.

It's when we reach Vietnam that we fully explore the prevailing theme of the movie, which Joker kindly spoon-feeds us later on when he explains that his peace symbol pin and helmet inscription of “Born to Kill” are intended to represent “the duality of man.” Everywhere you look in this film, you see evidence of that duality.

Look at the outward, rather blunt racism voiced by such characters as Animal Mother, despite the obvious love he has for his black brothers in arms. How about when Joker flips in an instant from discussing the meltdown of Pyle to wanting to bang Cowboy's sister, without so much as a change of tone?

Full Metal Jacket really explores the implications of sending very young men overseas to fight our wars. These young men who have barely lived their own lives are trained to be killers. We're meant to see early on that Pyle is not fit for duty, but was Pyle really that much more fucked up than the murderous gunner in the helicopter who brags about killing civilian women and children or Animal Mother?

Unlike in a lot of his other films, Kubrick isn't afraid to get a little more visceral with his shots this time around. The low-angle handheld cameras that follow the platoon as they advance forward late in the movie or the point-of-view shots when Ermey screams at a soldier or the soldiers eulogize their dead brothers are evidence of how important it was to Kubrick that audiences feel like they're in the platoon with these guys.

"Do you realize how many simple carbs are in this donut, Private Pyle? Do you know how much fat is in this donut? I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU EAT BELOW MAINTENANCE AND ADOPT A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE!"
Just as with A Clockwork Orange or The Shining, this movie demands a lot from its star and without an excellent performance from Matthew Modine, it just wouldn't have worked. Fortunately, Modine and the large supporting cast were all up to the task. Nobody seems like they're “playing soldier” and they wear the enormity of the film's situations on their faces well.

It's always been a cute thing to call Full Metal Jacket two movies, but in actuality it's more like three. There's basic training, the deployment, and the final sequence, where everything comes to fruition. The film simply wouldn't be as great as it is if any of those parts were missing, no matter how entertaining and rewatchable the opening act is.

Grade: A

Summer Moviethon 2016: 2001: A Space Odyssey

June 28: #16, 2001: A Space Odyssey

What the HAL happened up there?



This was my second viewing of 2001 and I enjoyed it about as much as the first time, though I wasn't particularly excited to watch a half hour of monkey business at the start and another half hour of a space-themed acid trip at the end of the film again.

Yes, I know what the monkey part is supposed to mean. Everything Stanley Kubrick does is intentional (which is usually a good thing) and you can dive waaaay into the intro and ending if you'd like. Those parts still detract from the film upon subsequent viewings and are far longer than they need to be in order to make their point. And even Kubrick's much-loved match cut from the bone to the satellite, while cool, is way too on the nose to be compelling symbolism.

If there's anything I don't love about 2001, it's just that: I feel like about half of the film is pretty much Kubrick jerking off. He finally had free reign to express himself and he decided to make a masturbatory ode to his own genius.

That's the bad stuff. However, sandwiched in between the beginning and extended ending is a truly compelling science fiction story featuring remarkable special effects that still hold up almost 50 years later. For that reason, this is a movie that must be seen.

"Why yes, I can burn off your hemorrhoids, though it's a most uncommon request."

Within the middle part of the film, the methodical pace didn't bother me. Even the black screen during the introduction is used to great effect, as the original score is used to build tension right away. Kubrick provides a ton of memorable shots in this film. The shot of doomed astronaut Frank floating away from the safety of the pod when the AI computer HAL 9000 turns on him is beautiful, for instance.

Kubrick's version of the future is purposefully sterile, from the visuals inside the ships to the PR speak being used to cover up a disaster in the first part of the story set in the future. Kubrick alternates long, static shots in space with more dynamic close-ups, while doing the same with static shots and tracking shots inside the ships themselves. Of course, Kubrick's version of the future also looks like it was co-designed by Austin Powers, but that's what happens when you try to predict what things will look like in 2001 when you're still living in the mid-1960s.

The acting is capably done, although the cast is a bit hamstrung by what surely was Kubrick's insistence on a dry, emotionless reading of the script. Still, when it comes time for Keir Dullea to duel wits with naughty computer HAL 9000 later in the film, Dullea plays his part well and mirrors our surprise when HAL famously opts not to open the bay doors for him. When HAL coldly ends the conversation, it's a wonderful “holy shit” moment.

They should have stuck with the Andre 3000 instead.

2001: A Space Odyssey is pretty much mandatory viewing. However, while it's a film that everyone should see once, it's also one that many people won't bother seeing twice. At the very least, they might skip some of the beginning and end. If you do, don't worry. I won't judge.

Grade: B+

Summer Moviethon 2016: A Clockwork Orange

June 27: #15, A Clockwork Orange

Kubrick makes audiences squirm with emphasis on opposites, unblinking violence



I didn't watch A Clockwork Orange for a long time because I didn't think I'd like it. I knew about two scenes: the infamous “Singin' in the Rain” home invasion and the scene where Malcolm McDowell has his eyelids pinned open for a very peculiar brand of therapy. Neither one made me think I'd like the film.

However, it's on Netflix and I've been wanting to see some more of Stanley Kubrick's movies, so I gave it a whirl. I'm glad I did. This film is wildly influential and you can see the impression it made on everything from Quentin Tarantino's work to Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight or even the unfortunate subgenre of torture porn.

After seeing A Clockwork Orange, I don't think it fits that last label, though. Sure, we see lead character Alex prepare to rape a woman while singing a happy tune and forcing her husband to watch, but the scene isn't shot like the repugnant rape scenes in modern films like the remake of Last House on the Left.

In fact, I don't think that any of the scenes where terrible crimes are committed are filmed in a way that glamorizes the acts. Kubrick often makes use of a static camera placed far from the action, providing the viewer with a startlingly detached, sterile, unemotional perspective. He doesn't invite you to enjoy or even be disgusted what you see, like torture porn directors do. He merely provides you a voyeur's view of what's taking place and seems to be asking you, “What do you think?” Kubrick wants you to feel complicit in what you see.

The idea that at least some of the violence that takes place in the film may titillate the audience is not avoided, of course. It's kind of the point. Whether you chuckle at Alex killing a woman with a giant penis sculpture or feel satisfied when the tables are turned on Alex later, a close viewing makes you think that if he could, Kubrick would be next to you, smirking when you finally find a terrible scene that fails to offend you.

Alex has his eyelids pinned as he viddys a slooshy horrorshow, or something.

The whole film uses opposites to make its many points. Alex is all about bringing disorder to order. The house he barges in during the afore-mentioned scene is sparkling clean, with nothing but a few chairs that are more pieces of art than furniture to be found. With his singing, violence, and loud behavior, he takes joy in shattering the perfect world of the occupants.

Other opposites include Kubrick's mismatching use of music and content, especially noted in Alex's love of Beethoven. Not everything is supposed to represent an opposite, of course. Kubrick intentionally parallels the violence found in the Bible while questioning the emphasis on vengeance found in not only the Old Testament but also the criminal justice system. He even manages to get a few shots in on politicians near the end of the film, when Alex is reduced to a political football that can be used to score some PR points.

Malcolm McDowell is absolutely perfect as Alex. He has the likability that you stereotypically associate with charismatic sociopaths and when he charms some of the leaders at the prison he winds up in, you can believe it because he has the ability to play an earnest individual who you still feel that you can't trust.

I refuse to believe that McDowell and American Horror Story's Evan Peters aren't somehow related.

The film isn't perfect, but many of its flaws are a real matter of preference and are more of a product of Kubrick staying faithful to the book than anything. I wasn't a fan of the silly slang terms in the film, with all the “slooshy tolchoking” and “viddying” or whatever, but it wasn't a deal breaker.

As a movie that stays relevant to this day and a predecessor to everything from villains who “just want to watch the world burn” to real-life internet trolls who do things “for the lulz,” this film deserves its classic status. Like many of Kubrick's movies, A Clockwork Orange works on the surface level and provides plenty of opportunities for deeper analysis, too.

Grade: A

6/25/2016

Summer Moviethon 2016: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

June 25: #14, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Not even Megan Fox in a short skirt can save this festering turd.



Very early in the sequel to 2014's TMNT reboot, there's an incredibly contrived scene where Megan Fox's April O'Neil puts on her best 90s rock video starlet strut, snatches a plaid skirt off a rack without breaking stride, puts it on over her pants and ties her top to show off her mid-riff. It's something that would work very well set to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" and immediately comes off as pandering. Or maybe someone involved in the film's production pointed out to director Dave Green that Megan Fox is in the movie, and they should probably have her show some skin.

At least, that's what I thought at first. Then, I realized that it was in fact a preemptive apology. Like, "Hey, this is going to be a really shitty movie, so here's Megan Fox as a naughty school girl."

But even if this was 2006, that wouldn't be a suitable consolation prize for paying money to see the uninspired mess that is the latest installment of this once-proud franchise.

Hey, I know how to pander to the audience, too!
The last film wasn't exactly Shakespeare and the character designs sucked then, too. However, we at least had a couple of great action sequences at the end to pay off our patience. This time, the action sequences are just kind of there. Sure, stuff blows up, giant spaceships are assembled in the sky, and many turtles execute all types of flips and kicks, but what thrill there was is long gone.

And everything else is worse than last time around, too. Like the jokes. Oh, the jokes. Raphael jumps onto the front of a motorcycle being ridden by a bad guy and says, "That's how I roll." After he knocks him off the bike, he adds, "That's how you roll." Get it? Cause bikes have wheels that roll! HILARIOUS!

That's not all. While still in human form, Rocksteady (played by WWE wrestler Sheamus, who brings enough enthusiasm to the role that you feel bad for him) says that he's Finnish. Why? "Because when I start a beatdown, I always 'Finnish' it!" Ugh. Later on, Michelangelo points out that Krang is "literally re-arming" as he immediately summons a replacement arm after losing the original in battle. And he's supposed to be the funny one in the group!

Krang pretty much sucks. Stephen Amell as Casey Jones sucks, too. The film is peppered with the same old personality conflict that (gasp!) threatens to tear the Turtles apart that we've seen in every movie, and you spend half the movie feeling bad for Laura Linney, who has been nominated for three Academy Awards, but felt the need to slum it by appearing in this nonsense. What's worse, like Sheamus, no one told her that this movie is going to be a shit-show and she should mail it in. Instead, she plays her role as a detective like it's an honest-to-God police procedural and it just makes you want to give her a hug and tell her, "It's okay. You can stop now. Michael Bay can't hurt you anymore."


"There's Michael Bay! GET HIM!!!"


And maybe he won't be able to, since this film is flopping in the box office as we speak. Hopefully, that means the Turtles can rest in peace for awhile and Platinum Dunes can find a different dead film franchise to resurrect into a hideous, grotesque, shambling version of its former self.

Grade: D

Summer Moviethon 2016: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

#13: June 25, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Tonight, I dine on turtle soup.


I had never planned on seeing the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot for a number of reasons. For one, I'm generally anti-reboot. We all know the origins of the turtles; let's not go back there again. Two, I thought the Nickelodeon cartoon was well done and would have rather seen a feature-length version of that. Three, the turtles look awful in the film. Just horrible.

I mean, if you think about it, a half-human, half-turtle is a hideous thing, right? That's the stuff of nightmares. Even when considering how horrifying a mutated turtle that walks on its hind legs would look in real life, though, the characters for the reboot are still terrible.

Yikes.

So that was enough for me. Until I heard a few surprisingly good reviews ("It's better than you'd expect," friends said) and the movie came to my small town theater where our whole family can go see a movie for $20. We see just about every kid-friendly movie that comes through town, so I bit the bullet and watched it. And yes, it wasn't as bad as I expected.

Today was the first time I'd seen it since that initial viewing, and I still think it's pretty decent. Sure, April O'Neil is the worst reporter ever (who jots notes onto a pad in 2014?). Sure, it's silly that the turtles were once April's pets and Splinter became a master of ninjitsu by reading a book. Sure, there's more lens flare than in both of the new Star Trek films combined.

Still, there's some good here. Shredder seems pretty badass, even if his suit is way over the top and he appears to have arms entirely constructed out of oversized Swiss army knives. Some of the self-aware humor hits the mark, and as a veteran of the Transformers films, Megan Fox knows that her role is to look pretty and make the same three facial expressions all film long, so she's a great choice for O'Neil.

Expression number 1: Wide-eyed amazement.

Again, there's a lot not to like here. I could have done without the predictable subplot with Will Arnett as O'Neil's permanently friend-zoned cameraman, for example. But even if he's basically doing a Michael Bay impression, director Jonathan Liebesman can direct the shit out of an action sequence. Both the avalanche scene and the climactic rooftop fight are extremely well done, which is what takes this out of the C- or D range and makes it worth a viewing.

Grade: C+

Summer Moviethon 2016: The Great Alone

June 24: #12, The Great Alone

Told you I was a sucker for documentaries that feature niche sports!


Already behind on my quest to watch and review 150 movies in 90 days, The Great Alone was a godsend as I browsed Netflix. Only 80 minutes long, a five-star user average, and it's a documentary about a sled dog racer? As someone who once watched (and enjoyed) a documentary on the competitive Scrabble scene, it was a no-brainer.

Let's get right to it - The Great Alone is fantastic. It checks all the boxes: it provides you with the information necessary to understand the niche sport it covers without drowning you in it. It provides incremental background on the subject, second-generation Iditarod competitor Lance Mackey, to give you a reason to care about what's happening. And most of all, like all great sports documentaries, it's not really about the sport.

The cinematography is gorgeous throughout.

Mackey's father, Dick Mackey, won perhaps the most memorable Iditarod race of all-time in 1978. In a race that covers 1,049 miles, Mackey won by one second, collapsing at the finish line as his son, Lance, looked on.

Dick Mackey was a great sled dog racer, but a subpar father, which he admits himself in the film. "I knew the personalities and quirks and in-and-outs of my dogs better than I understood my children," he says. Like so many boys who failed to gain their father's attention, Lance reacted not by avoiding sled dog racing, but by immersing himself in it in an effort to finally get the attention and acceptance he wanted from his dad. Your mileage may vary, but if you can relate at all to Lance's relationship with his father, this film will hit home.

Along the way, Lance had other struggles, too, including a bout with throat cancer and struggles with drug addiction. It's clear that many of Lance's issues spiraled out of the childhood that he spent trying in vain to connect with his father. It's poignant and sad to see that, even decades later as a grown man himself, Lance still remains driven by the urge to be loved by someone who always had other things he'd rather do.

A nine-day race throughout Alaska provides a lot of opportunities for beautiful shots, and director Greg Kohs doesn't disappoint. Kohs uses long-distance shots of Mackey and his team of dogs to illustrate the scope of the race and showcase the beauty of Alaska. Kohs also makes skillful use of the interviews with Lance and his family, knowing when to linger on a close-up and when to use a voiceover as Lance continues his efforts to reach Nome, where the race finishes.

All of a sudden, marathon running doesn't look so lonely.

Even besides the personal drama, the documentary is pretty fascinating stuff. Lance's relationship with his dogs is rather touching and makes it hard to think of a sport like this as abusive to the animals, as PETA claims. I suppose it'd be a matter of the individual racer and how they treat their dogs, but Lance clearly loves his animals as much as he does any human. I also enjoyed the footage of Lance reaching checkpoints in tiny Alaskan towns, where bundled-up kids ask for autographs and the racers stop for an hour or two of sleep before heading off again.

Grade: A