This edition features stills from Larry Fessenden's new movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and Hannibal homages to Kubrick.
Alien. 1979. Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo, & Helen Horton. Brandywine Productions/Twentieth Century-Fox Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
I’m not even a huge science fiction fan. Of course I love any good movie, no matter the genre. But even as a nerd, someone who grew up loving Star Trek: The Next Generation and plenty of other science fiction, it isn’t my first choice. Yet you can’t keep a great film down. No matter if it’s your preferred genre or not. Now, when you start to mix genres together, that’s my favourite. So at a crossroads between horror and sci-fi, Ridley Scott’s Alien converges on my tastes to make for an altogether frightening experience. The undeniable legacy of the film is plastered over many genre films that have come out since. Likely that’ll be the case for a long, long time. Scott’s genius as a director is matched in the writing of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, collaborating here on the story with Ronald Shusett. Working on the isolation of space, in ’79 still a relatively new frontier with untold terrors lurking in its dark and uncharted territories, Alien coils you into madness through its horrifying scenario playing out on a previously quiet ship called the Nostromo amongst a bunch of shipmates trying to get home to Earth.
The atmosphere here is tantamount to actually being out there in the depths of outer space, stuck on a ship somewhere where nobody can hear you scream. Scott makes you feel the despair, the fear, the isolation and its effects. Each set piece is better than the last, every corner and hallway exudes the sense of a real environment. The writing of O’Bannon is one thing. The imagination of Scott is entirely another beast, one that isn’t finished working as of this writing. But the clever effectiveness of one of his most satisfying works never fails to hook me. Watching it right now, nearly 3 AM here in Newfoundland, I’m watching Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett walk through the corridors alone, calling out for Jones the cat. And when he finds that facehugger skin, the chills still run up my spine.
First and foremost, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is obviously the star of the show. What I dig, though, is how O’Bannon sets the entire crew up as characters. Once we get to the excitement and all the wonderful thrills(/chills), Ripley is our woman. She carries us through the action, the horror, as our tour guide almost. Regardless of her status as protagonist, O’Bannon gives us the time to get to know the others around her, so as not to stick us totally in one perspective. It’s a testament to good writing when a screenplay is able to setup a cast of characters behind the one real main character, to make them interesting, to have us spend time with them and let each one build instead of ending up as simply expendable victims for the alien to kill. Mostly, O’Bannon writes the characters so that they’re natural. In any genre, any writer will have a better chance at making their script more powerful if the characters feel like they’re organic. With a crew like those on the Nostromo, the chemistry has to be tight, like the sort of chat and relationships you’d generally see from any group that spend so much time together. Add to that a bunch of good actors who give it their all and you’ve got one enjoyable feast of emotions that run the gamut from strength to paranoia to bald fear and everything in between.
That first reveal of the Xenomorph is forever etched in my mind. Having the cat there makes it unique. Those shots of Jones hissing, then the eyes watching poor Brett get nibbled up, they’re really something spectacular. Not sure why it’s so interesting. Perhaps to see a cat, a fine predator in its own right, witness such an apex predator at work is the reason this scene works to such a degree. Either way, when the Xenomorph, so quiet, drops down behind Brett, there’s a HOLY SHIT moment, and you immediately understand how threatening this creature is truly. Forget the size, the look, the nasty jaws and acid blood, just the sheer physical prowess of the Xenomorph to curl down from above, slow, silent: that is horrifying. Later, the scene with Dallas (Skerritt) and the Xenomorph is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Then things only get more frightening, the tension mounts until you feel your spine sucking up against the inside of your stomach. There’s a lot of downright exciting moments, too, but it’s the frights that keep me enthralled with Scott’s work in this movie every damn time.
My favourite sequence? When Ash (Holm) goes haywire. The first time I’d seen the film I never once expected it to happen. Now, I’m still impressed. The eerie way Holm plays the scene, the unsettling close-ups shot tight on Ash’s face as he starts leaking a bit of liquid, starting to go crazy. Then when Parker (Kotto) discovers the secret Ash is hiding, the nastiness of the simple effects make it all the more wild.
The sets are elaborate and Scott is able to take us away to another place. You become completely absorbed in the future world. Right down to how they’re shot and the way we initially follow a tracking shot through portions of the Nostromo before coming upon the crew in their stasis. A fine opener to the film, but a visual aesthetic Scott keeps up throughout the film’s entirety. The coldness of the camera, the silence, I find it works well with the advanced looking technology of the ship itself. At certain times you’re sure to be reminded of Stanley Kubrick. Others, you’re most definitely in a Scott landscape. What I like most are the exteriors, as opposed to the clean looking interiors. Outside we get this idea that yet it’s the future, but it is a dirty, rough and tumble one.
There’s no denying Alien is a whopping 5 stars. A fantastic ride into the heart of science fiction-horror. Scott blew everybody away, and still does with this piece of work. When people try to tell you horror or sci-fi can’t be art, you show them this film. Tell them they’re wrong. The imaginative direction on Scott’s part, the writing of O’Bannon. The strong central performance of Sigourney Weaver as the beloved Ripley, the beyond excellent support of a cast with the likes of John Hurt and Ian Holm. There is much to love. I can never get enough. I personally love the first three films of the series, and Prometheus.
But this one started it all. The dangerous aliens of the outer reaches have never been so vicious, so adverse to humanity as they are in this Scott masterpiece. Feast on it. Learn from it. This film won’t ever get old, except in the way that it gets better with age in all its horrific, science fiction goodness.
Full Metal Jacket. 1987. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Michael Herr, & Gustav Hasford; based on the novel The Short-Timers by Hasford.
Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Keyn Major Howard, & Ed O’Ross. Warner Bros/Natant/Stanley Kubrick Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
I forever will love Stanley Kubrick. I don’t care how many hacks come out of the woodwork trying to say he’s not as good as everyone makes him seem, that keeping his genius alive is supposedly trying to be artsy and yadda yadda yadda. Can’t believe the way many supposed film fans talk about film online. Then again, the ones clamouring all over the message boards aren’t the best representation of objectivity.
Full Metal Jacket is simply another instance of the brilliance that was Kubrick. Every bit of his impeccable style is on display – lots of perfectly composed frames, sweeping and gorgeous tracking shots, among much more. Having already taken a look into war, Kubrick opts to turn his attention to the viciousness of the Vietnam War. Of course it’s based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, so one of these days I’ll have to read it. Because among all the humorous moments weaved through the screenplay, the disturbing scenes, the unsettling visions of war and its affects, there’s deep things happening. Maybe some see it as a typical anti-war film. I see it as an in-depth examination of war, its effects and consequences. Mainly, Full Metal Jacket seeks to point out the damage war does to those who fight it, those against whom it’s fought, as well as everything and everyone it touches. There are other great war movies that try and get to the heart of these issues. This is one of the greatest.
Certainly there are disturbing moments. The first one, obviously, is when the other Marines-in-training throw a Blanket Party for Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). His wails alone are enough to sicken you emotionally. Perhaps the deepest cut is the fact Private Joker (Matthew Modine) joins in right at the end, despite his reservations. Creepier still is the vacant look in the eye of Pyle afterwards, as the others chant along with their Gunnery Sergeant. This all extends until that fateful moment in the bathroom where Pyle finally takes action. Albeit dangerous, ill-advised action. All the scenes leading up to this after the Blanket Party are unsettling, constantly catching the disaffected look now on Pyle’s face. Finally realizing he is alone in the struggle, no longer even with the helpful hand and watching eye of Joker. This is the entire emotional crux of the film’s plot, despite all the other elements of Vietnam and the action going on there. Pyle’s actions taint everything in the movie, everything for Joker, after what he does, and you can never forget it. Neither can Joker. For him, and the viewer, the atrocities of war begin long before they ever set foot on the battlefield against the enemy.
Part of why Kubrick makes this movie disturbing is because he shows us how certain people become brainwashed by the military. Not everyone, but many do succumb to it. At least back when Vietnam was raging, anyway. Nowadays there’s a little more disillusionment with the heroic idea of military service; not any part of the soldiers, though, rather the blood is on the hands of the government. And that comes through here in how we see Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) drilling and drilling and drilling the rhetoric in their heads. The reason things are as disturbing as they get is due to the fact Kubrick plays things in both comedic and serious light. For instance, Ermey’s amazing performance as the loud and foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant is definitely funny in that he pulls out a bunch of incredible insults, yet it’s terrible at the same time. There’s a way to train soldiers physically and mentally. Not sure this is how they ought to do it. In this day and age things are apparently much different. Kubrick uses that old school military bravado, the constant emasculating jabs and the constructions of masculinity that go along with the whole lifestyle, and he turns that on its head. Funny in the one moment. Serious a little later when we see how far it drives certain soldiers, like the poor, damaged Private Pyle. Sure, the platoon jogs around Parris Island and chants Hartman’s funny sound-offs. Underneath that is a darker reality. These aren’t rhymes to keep the young soldiers interested. It’s deflection. Hartman lures them in with funny, crude rhymes and jokes when really he’s hypnotizing them and brainwashing each last willing participant. Sadly, the way Pyle chooses to get out is probably better off. In a way, he’s spared all the terror, both real and existential, of the Vietnam War experience.
Joker: “Leonard, if Hartman comes in here and catches us, we‘ll both be in a world a‘ shit.”
Pyle: “I am in a world of shit”
When Hartman asks “What is this Mickey Mouse shit?” there’s not an immediate realization of how much depth that question carries. He doesn’t live to see what it goes on to mean. However, it’s clear to the audience by the time the credits roll. Both this film and Oliver Stone’s Platoon dig deep into the world of the military we’re not often given a look at. Usually we, especially Americans, are inundated with the idea that everything about the military, the soldiers, is patriotic, as if they can do no wrong. Instead of trying to make some hero’s tale, Kubrick – along with Michael Herr and writer of the novel on which the film is based Gustav Hasford – dissects the finer points, wondering exactly how these men coped with the training, which is rough enough, only to find themselves thrown into a war they don’t understand, one they maybe shouldn’t have been fighting.
Aside from simply the military, this is obviously aimed directly at Vietnam as a whole. Even in the smallest moments it’s evident. Joker and Private Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) walk back to base at one point, as the latter remarks: “We‘re supposed to be helping them and they shit all over us every chance they get.” This one single line exemplifies exactly the ignorant bliss in which so many Americans (both citizen and soldier) wallow because of the stories they were fed at the time. Everybody thought they were there to do some good, save people; America, saviours of the world. Yet they did some hideous things to the people there, not just military troops. Part of Kubrick’s commentary is that many of these people become sucked into the whole rhetoric and machismo of war, particularly the young men. So the fact these guys don’t see anything wrong with their role, the American role in Vietnam during the war is part and parcel of the brainwashing. We further see this in Joker’s continual reference/impersonation of John Wayne, as the ultimate representation of the American ideal of the tough guy, the absolute hero, the one and only MAN’s MAN. Hell, a portion of the brainwashing started before they even got to training. In addition, the desensitization comes nastier later when Joker and the others joke about fucking sisters, mothers, so on; this shows how emotionally stunted these guys have become after so long. Worse still, later when the Marines are being interviewed by a camera crew Rafterman acts like a big, tough killer, holding his rifle up with some bravado bullshit and pretending to have whipped his gun out all over the place. Joker doesn’t pretend to have already killed, though makes clear he wants to kill – supposedly. It all began the first time Joker and the rest of those hypnotized soldiers saw an amped up American classic where the men weren’t allowed to show emotion, only the flare and smoke off the muzzle of their gun as they blew it away after blowing some other poor soul away, or only the fire of lust on some young woman cast specifically to look good next to the American cowboy hero.
Kubrick really does the war genre a solid. Full Metal Jacket has an amazingly strong first half. The second half isn’t any less strong, it just diverges from the brainwashing angle of the plot a little more. That doesn’t mean this aspect disappears. As we’re thrown “into the shit” alongside Joker, we slowly come to discover how one man and his principles can change over the course of time. More so if he’s subjected to the horrors of war, both deliberately and purposefully. At the same time, there’s a degree of self-realization. By the finish, Joker hasn’t exactly become totally engrained in the system. At one point he brings up “the duality of man“, all that “Jungian thing” and so on. This is the epitome of Joker. Nearing the end, he gives in and kills a sniper in mercy. This is his way of surviving that world of shit of which he and Pyle spoke. Although, coming full circle to Hartman’s words the men all sing “Mickey Mouse March” and head off in the distance, towards the next atrocity. So in a way, Joker and the others realize it’s all a bunch of Mickey Mouse shit. Yet as Joker, for him, a world of shit it may be, but being alive is better than being dead. After seeing some of what the dead endured, his mind may not have been totally warped. It may, in a mysterious way, be saved.
Can we ever rehabilitate a criminal mind? Is some supposed rehabilitation too invasive?
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE goes beyond either question with a look at a young man primed for ultra-violence.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 1964. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Peter George, & Terry Southern.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, & Jack Creley. Columbia Pictures/Hawk Films.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is easily what I consider as one of the funniest films of all time. I love me a good Farrelly Brothers flick, In Bruges is another one that kills me, Anders Thomas Jensen’s movie Adam’s Apples is a god damn riot. Then there’s stoner comedies like Cheech and Chong among others that give me a kick, some of the Broken Lizard movies are downright hilarious. Point is, I’m not snobbish about my comedy, nor do I think this film in particular is high brow. But I love comedy from any time, any era, any corner of the world.
Dr. Strangelove is so good because it came along at a particular time. In the midst of the Cold War, in a time where extreme ideology certainly reared its head in the U.S. and had people paranoid of communists infiltrating society, Kubrick – along with Peter George himself and brilliant writer Terry Southern – turned the book Red Alert from something sombre into an absolutely knock ’em down, drag ’em out riot. All the same, there’s nothing slapstick about this, and even in its ridiculousness there’s still always a contained feeling; that clinical process that Kubrick seems to inject into almost every one of his films. It’s capable of being incredibly funny while also taking on the concept of nuclear war, completely inept heads of government and more.
I still remember seeing this for the first time. Each viewing since then feels like the first all over again because every joke is still fresh, especially in this day and age where lunatics are all too near the big red button. I’m always laughing just as hard. And for that, I thank Kubrick. So much of his filmography is quite serious, which I love. However, it’s nice to see the funny side of that great director, in no less than one of the greatest comedies – if not THE GREATEST – in cinematic history.
Sterling Hayden is pitch perfect as General Ripper. There’s no way anybody could’ve given Ripper such a funny turn. When he starts going on about his “essence” there’s no way I can keep a straight face. It is at once frightening and all the same makes you giggle. That’s the overall genius of the film. Certainly when it comes to Hayden’s character. He is just a great actor, whose performances in films like Kubrick’s The Killing and The Godfather are memorable. Although not near as memorable as General Jack D. Ripper. And what a hilariously dark name for his character.
This brings me to the fact of names. Look at a few of them: Buck Turgidson (sounds slightly like turd yet also literally spells out ‘turgid’), President Merkin Muffley (do I need to point out what a merkin is, or what that then means for his last name?), Colonel Bat Guano, Major King Kong (played amazingly by Slim Pickens). Many of the main characters are named with tongue planted firmly in cheek. However, the President himself is most interesting, as his name seems to play into part of the character’s purpose.
One major aspect of the satire in this story is how the President of the United States of America is made out to be the ultimate pawn. Merely a figurehead. The whole fact he’s been overridden when Ripper goes mad and starts the nuclear attack on Russia points to the fact he really has no ultimate power, when it comes down to the wire. The fact the POTUS is named Merkin Muffley suggests a couple things. Mainly, the idea of a merkin – a pubic wig – suggests he is a fake, or a literal wig that hides something, concealing. So Merkin himself, as a figurehead for the government, is just a peon. He’s made to look all powerful when really it’s everyone underneath him, mainly those in the War Room (and obviously General Ripper who overstepped his rank) holding all the real power.
Love when Kong reads out all sorts of materials in the plane, including condoms, nylon stockings, lipstick. Such a farce, yet unless you’re really paying attention you might just pass off this brief moment. That’s another brilliant aspect to the script. There are a number of points where the writing weaves a serious situation through excellent satirical dialogue that you could miss it if you’re not focused. Then in other scenes it’s almost dripping with satire to the point that if you miss it, you’re just not watching the film.
The actors are all in fine form. You cannot ignore the pure genius of Peter Sellers, though. Three different parts. Each more hilarious than the last. It’s hard for me to even decide which one of them I love most. Mandrake is priceless in his juxtaposition with the perpetually crazy General Ripper ranting on about fluoridation and how Commies never drink water, only vodka, and all sorts of further madness. President Muffley’s conversation with the Russian Premier is one of the film’s highlights, as well as perhaps one of the most prevalent instances of the absurdist satire at play. But you’ve also got the eponymous Dr. Strangelove. He is appropriately the big finisher, giving us an awesomely performed finale to both finish off the film, and also the performance of Sellers. He is one of the greatest comedians to have ever graced the silver screen. Even if you recognize him slightly, each character has their own way of talking, on top of an accent, and they even move differently. All a testament to his impeccable acting talents.
In addition, the great George C. Scott brings General Buck Turgidson to life. Right from the get go he has me laughing. As the scenes wear on and the situations become dire, his comedic efforts and timing only serve the plot even better. One of my favourite moments from Scott is after Turgidson answers the phone and it’s his secretary, the one with whom he’s sleeping; he gives her this great little speech that makes me crack up. Everything about Scott’s performance is stellar, right down to the incessant gum chewing of General Buck.
There are so many impressive elements to Dr. Strangelove, but above all else it is funny, it cuts deep while also making things laughable. The satire and its execution, from George C. Scott to Peter Sellers in his three roles, is first and foremost what makes things work. As usual, Kubrick makes good directorial choices. There is an ominous feeling even throughout all the comedy, and that clinical sense of direction further seen in his later work is very much at play. All in all, I’m comfortable calling this my personal favourite comedy of all-time. Enough moments make me tear up from laughter that I can easily say that. Never will I get bored of the political commentary and satire jammed into this movie. In my top three Kubrick, which is saying something. If it’s not your cup of tea, I understand. But damn, are you ever missing out if this doesn’t strike you as funny as it does me.
Eyes Wide Shut. 1999. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick & Frederic Raphael; inspired by Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler.
Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Sherbedgia, Todd Field, Vinessa Shaw, Sky du Mont, Fay Masterson, Leelee Sobieski, & Thomas Gibson. Warner Bros. Pictures/Stanley Kubrick Productions.
Rated R. 159 minutes.
Stanley Kubrick is one of the best directors to have ever lived, certainly if we’re considering American directors. It’s hard for me to choose my favourite film out of his filmography. Although, I do absolutely prefer some over others. I believe 2001: A Space Odyssey is his best work, yet my all-time favourite is Dr. Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, followed by A Clockwork Orange.
And right alongside those two in my top three sits Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final film. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, known in English as Dream Story, Kubrick and writer Frederic Raphael take us through the strained relationship of a married couple, as the husband finds his way down into the eerie underbelly of the upper crust. All those awesome Kubrick techniques we’ve come to know and love are here: long and luscious tracking shots, dreamy fades between most scenes, an almost uncanny ability for perfectly composed frames, and much more. When you add in two solid actors such as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (the former is undeniably crazy yet a talented performer), a Kubrick picture can only get better. Such is the case with this masterpiece.
Not everyone loves this film as much as I do, and many deride it as a lesser work near the end of a great director’s life and career. Me, I believe Kubrick left life having bestowed us with one last work of tantalizing art.
I’m always intrigued by real life couples willing to act in a film together, especially when it comes to a film such as this one, its themes, the wild subject matter. There are a few incredibly raw moments. For instance, early on when Bill and Alice are arguing after smoking pot together she starts laughing at him; the look Cruise gives his wife, his real wife, is a genuine look of an open wound hurt. Maybe being husband and wife in reality gives actors a further depth they can reach in thinking of what it might be like if their characters lives were actually their lives. That entire scene where Alice reveals her fleeting, though thoroughly shocking feelings about a Navy man she saw during a vacation at Cape Cod is, in my mind, a master class in acting. Kidman and Cruise are both in top form. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the writing from Kubrick and Raphael is downright compelling. Whereas the plot of the film gets much weirder, and wilder, these personal moments are what the entire picture is all about.
Aside from acting this film is built upon Kubrick and his eye for gorgeous shots, the way those shots are composed from framing to the actual look of the sets and everything in between. More than that, the atmosphere and tone of Eyes Wide Shut is so impressive. The cinematography of Larry Smith, who’d been a gaffer on Barry Lyndon and The Shining (later working with Kubrick-lover Nicolas Winding Refn), uses all natural lighting, as the director did not want to use studio lighting. So the visual look is beautiful and interesting, a combination of natural light sources and push processing (a developing process which works on the actual sensitivity of the film itself). The processing makes all the colours much more intense. Couple that with some of the interesting lighting Smith resorts to in order to capture many scenes and it makes for a lot of strange, tinted shots with hues of neon, blue light washing through windows, and lots of deep shadows amongst the vibrantly coloured rooms. On top of the cinematography and the expert directorial choices of Kubrick is the score. Kubrick was the master of musical choices, he opted to use such fascinating stuff to flesh out his efforts. Here, there’s original music from Jocelyn Pook, the stuff we hear as Bill ends up confronting the masked crowd, that ominous piano and other weird sounds which end up recurring. Also, as usual, Kubrick employs the use of classical pieces, which all work impeccably for where they’re placed. Often I feel as a director he was able to mimic the feel and flow of ballet. Never more so than in this film, fitting enough his last. This is most clear in those scenes where the Steadicam takes us through the large, mysterious cult mansion where they’ve all gathered, the various rooms, as if we’re moving around a stage. All together, the elements of this movie work so well together in a gorgeous, strange unison.
Eyes Wide Shut is a story of sexual relationships, both in and out of marriage. Of course we’re framed by the marriage of the Harfords. However, the entire journey Bill finds himself on over the course of that one especially wild evening takes him out of the realm of marriage, into that vast, mysterious sea of sex with faceless people. In a way, you can see it as Alice has a face: she is his wife, the mother of his child, the love of his life, his best friend. Many, many things. We know her, we see her perfectly, flaws and all. She represents, obviously, the married life. Then there’s the cult, all those people under the hoods and masks and costumes. They are the deep unknown of bachelorhood, which Bill confronts. They are the faceless mass of people only looking for sex, anonymity in their relationships, without feeling and without responsibility or any of that which marriage brings. Those lavish, secretive parties – never in the same place twice, their piano player given an address where to head an hour prior, so on – are representative of how the ultimate bachelor sees their lifestyle, as better than anything marriage offers. The cult itself is closed off, they do all in their power to keep others from getting in because their parties are just way too interesting for outsiders; certainly for a married doctor.
Furthermore, the men in this orgy cult are the basest form of men, guys like Ziegler (Pollack) – one minute he stands with his wife downstairs hosting the big party and the next minute is upstairs having sex with a girl that proceeds to nearly overdose on a speedball. The types which let people die, or worse, then cover things up, all in the name of power and pleasure and control. Whereas to the deceptive, lusty man marriage is a loss of control, to a caring man marriage is sharing control; something Bill seems to eventually realize, one way or another. To the people that belong to this high society sex cult, marriage is a loss of freedom. So a large part of this story, if not the majority, concerns Bill effectively struggling with his faithfulness. The catalyst is the revelation from his wife, setting him forth on a quest to figure out if being faithful is truly his choice, or rather if it’s something he’s merely settled into casually because of societal expectation. Bill is not like Ziegler, nor the rest of the faceless cult members at the orgy. He discovers the dangers of insane, swinging single life later, as well; after going back to the apartment of Domino, a young prostitute he’d nearly slept with, her roommate lets him know that she is HIV-positive. This and the sinister danger of the cult are enough to propel him back to his happy family life. By the end of the film he discovers he can both have his cake AND eat it, too. It’s called having a wife and being in love, Bill.
There’s not enough time in the world to talk about every last thing I love. Eyes Wide Shut is not given the proper respect it deserves. Maybe if Kubrick made a couple more films before he’d passed, then this wouldn’t be so maligned. Over time, more people have warmed to it, though still not enough. That doesn’t matter, really. I couldn’t care less about the majority. This is a masterpiece from one of the great masters in our time. Kubrick’s sensibilities make this a ride through strange cityscapes, through the darkened corridors of mansions where the rich and powerful conduct their suspicious activities, and we come out on the other side not totally sure of where we’ve been, or where we’re headed. If anything, Eyes Wide Shut is a well crafted mystery-thriller, masquerading as an erotic thriller. At its heart the film concerns the sexual politics of relationships, and of the single life. Nothing is ever simple or bland when in Kubrick’s hands. If only there were a hundred more of his movies.
Fear X. 2003. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Refn & Hubert Selby Jr.
Starring John Turturro, Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Eric McIntyre, William Allen Young, Gene Davis, Mark Houghton, Jacquline Ramel, James Remar, Nadia Litz, Amanda Ooms, Liv Corfixen, & Frank Adamson. Moviehouse Entertainment/Det Danske Filminstitut/Fear X Ltd.
Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.
This is one hell of an interesting film, for a whole host of reasons. First of all, Nicolas Winding Refn is a director-writer whom I find incredible, one of the closest filmmakers currently making movies that has sensibilities of some of my favourite old school directors. Refn continually proves he’s got vision, willing each subsequent project to be weirder and wilder than the one it follows. Secondly, John Turturro is a talented character actor. He is often recognized for his talent, just never recognized enough. Far as I’m concerned he should be in many more films, as well as even better calibre films than some of the projects he’s been in. Because regardless of what the movie is, Turturro is sure to provide an odd thrill.
Fear X rots the gut of some viewers because it defies explanation. Moreover, Refn himself has all but thrust his middle finger at the audience; not in profanity but more as a challenge. He says “what the fuck is an ending” in response to those turned off by lack of resolution. I guess the same people worried about that have a ton of trouble with stuff from David Lynch, or someone even more mad like Andrzej Żuławski, both of whose films usually say ‘fuck meaning’ – not in that there is NO meaning, rather in the sense of being hard to pin down with a singular explanatory idea/sentence.
In the vein of Lynchian storytelling, Refn, along with all the dialogue written by Hubert Selby Jr (author of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn), draws us into the fever dream of a man grieving terribly for his wife after her inexplicable murder. The story is labyrinthine and coils around you until there’s a feeling of tension that won’t let go, much like that which grips the protagonist. Never do we know for sure the final answer. We are left to hypothesize on our own, to cobble together the bits Refn and Selby offer.
What we make of this journey is ours.
And ours alone.
Psychological films can get boring if they’re not handled with some sort of technique or style which speaks to those elements. Refn is undoubtedly influenced heavily by Stanley Kubrick. This shows often in many of his works post-Pusher era. It’s particularly prevalent here in the psychological aspect of the journey Harry (Turturro) takes to find out the truth behind what happened to his wife. Some of the symmetrical frames and zooms that Refn uses throughout the film are the child of Kubrick’s directorial technique. None of it is robbery. It is pure and plain homage to a master whom Refn so clearly idolizes. Also, the Lynchian influence is not only in the film’s plot. Often times the cinematography here reminds me of Blue Velvet in particular with its shadowy interiors, colourful yet dark and ominous, so rich and vibrant while simultaneously feeling entrenched in black, negative spaces. Cinematographer Larry Smith has gone on to work with Refn on a couple other pictures, this being only his second feature film credit; impressive to say the least, as the work here is impeccable from by eye. He and Refn cultivate an unsettling atmosphere that keeps you right in the paranoid mindset of Harry, at the center of a life marred by doubt and unresolved questions, never far from the bent reality of nightmares.
Add into the atmosphere a bit of Brian Eno, and things get all the more interesting. He works alongside Dean Landon and J. Peter Schwalm to create an ambient layer of sound that hovers around every last scene like a ghostly presence. The score is foreboding, it makes more unsure than we already are about what lies beyond the peripherals of Harry’s vision, both figuratively and literally. Most of all, the music and sound design alike is powerful in its quietude just like the central performance from Turturro.
Turturro is the reason Fear X is able to stay so emotionally credible. His performance as Harry is such a subtle one that you never find it hard to empathize with him. Watching his descent into further paranoia as the plot wears on becomes a revelation. Much like his character from Barton Fink, Harry is sort of dropped into an environment that’s totally foreign to him, where nothing makes sense only what he’s able to glean from his own thought process. In a way, the character is similar to the audience in that we’re left to our own devices, as Harry must piece together the faint bits of clues without any explanations or answers. Turturro’s abilities as a character actor are on display throughout our witnessing Harry nearly crumble to nothing in front of our eyes, slipping down a rabbit hole of paranoid fear.
I also can’t not mention James Remar. He does a fantastic job with his role. There are many places he turns up in film and television which surprise me, and this movie may take the cake. Regardless, he gives a top notch performance here as a cop with a guilty conscience, exacerbated by the arrival of Harry in his jurisdiction. From moment one, Remar fascinates with his portrayal of Peter and really makes his character honest, laying bare the remorse, or maybe lack thereof, in a killer.
Fear X is not on my top list of Best Nicolas Winding Refn. At the same time, it is still a remarkable work of cinema. Many pore this film over looking for exact clues, artefacts within the script and the dialogue and the particular events or down to the shots where they’ll say “Oh here it is; the answer” – except that’s not the point.
This film is about fear and paranoia. It is about the dangerous path we find ourselves on when the answers are not able to fit inside a tiny, pre-packaged box, when our idealism runs afoul in a world not built for the idealistic. So within the intentions of the film itself, I believe there was always meant to be an open end to the questions being confronted. I have my ideas about the concrete elements that might make up a nice, neat little package in which Fear X could slot itself. But for me, the grey area feeling of the movie is what appeals to me. The fear of the title, the paranoia of the protagonist, these are what drive me towards feeling Refn did something excellent here. No matter how I look at things, this is an underrated mystery-thriller with a massively engaging performance out of Turturro.
The Shining. 1980. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick & Diane Johnson; based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King.
Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson, & Tony Burton. Warner Bros./Hawk Films/Peregrine/Producers Circle.
Rated R. 146 minutes.
Let’s get one thing straight: I love this movie. Fanatically.
I’ve also got problems with it.
There are vast differences between the source material of The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. For a man who mostly got close to horror in a psychological sense before this 1980 horror classic, it’s a strange pick for the master director. At the same time, it’s also a good fit. While this is mainly a ghost story, the clinical way in which Kubrick attacks the subject matter and thematic material really brings out the horror of the human drama at its core. Famously, Stephen King has said the movie is “cold” whereas his book was “hot“, and that Kubrick wasn’t capable of telling the story how it was meant to be told.
And in part I agree with Mr. King. Because the book is better. However, I do find Kubrick’s film a slice of terror. Further than that, to me the supernatural element of King’s original novel is still there amongst everything. It’s simply that Kubrick takes that all and envisions it in very human terms. We absolutely see the haunted elements of King here, there’s just a completely different element to this film and how it perceives the story of Jack Torrance’s madness.
If King’s novel is about the supernatural forces of The Overlook Hotel taking its toll on the Torrance family, Kubrick’s film is a ghost story that’s most of all an allegory for personal family troubles, the failure of people to face their problems head on until they all but literally haunt them, as well as the attempts of many to bury the dark secrets of their past like the various murdered souls haunting the halls of The Overlook.
Perhaps a straight adaptation, such as the lesser but still enjoyable TV version King had a hand in, is more enjoyable to some. And though there is a part of me that faults this movie for not going directly at the source material, because there’s some great stuff there that didn’t make this cut, Kubrick most definitely made an impressive horror film that not only contributed to the genre as a whole, it also left an indelible mark on many moviegoers. To this day, I can close my eyes and almost imagine the entire film front to back because of how many hundred times I’ve seen it.
One of my biggest beefs is the change to the character of Wendy Torrance. I find Shelley Duvall an intriguing actor, and she gives a knockout performance here. Still, the character bothers me. In the book she is nowhere near as waif-ish and frail as the Wendy which Kubrick and Diane Johnson wrote. And that boggles my mind, really. Because there’s absolutely no reason to change her character into such a “dishrag“, as Mr. King so eloquently puts it whenever asked. What gets me most is that this Wendy does not seem the type to stand up to her husband. She talks of having asked Jack to stop drinking, or else she would leave, and this doesn’t strike me as genuine with this character. She can barely hold steady ground in a conversation with her husband. Let alone confront his violent temper and alcoholism. In fact, the way Kubrick and Johnson have written Wendy is, as King again has noted, fairly misogynistic. There are barely any moments of strength in Wendy, which bothers me. It is so far from the character in King’s novel that it makes no sense. Changing the themes and focusing more on the human drama of alcoholism, the effects it has on a family, the bad decisions of the patriarch looming over his family, so on, all that makes sense to me. An adaptation doesn’t always need to follow copy-for-copy the source material. Many adaptations do well to stray a little. But this character change doesn’t come as genuine, as if Kubrick and Johnson solely wanted to focus on Jack and his son, and so they let everyone else fall to the wayside.
The character of Jack remains virtually the same across King and Kubrick’s respective visions. Again, though, I do agree partly with King. I love Nicholson here. He kills the performance, no doubt. I just can’t help imagining the role with someone less Nicholson-like. In that Jack definitely looks a bit off right from the beginning. That signature Nicholson look, the eyebrows, the sly smile, it reeks of insanity too early. This takes away part of the impact, in my opinion. Furthermore, the screenplay as opposed to the novel doesn’t give us a lot of time with Torrance before he’s going mad. He’s very quickly a dick and then soon a real terror in this movie. It’s no less shocking how insane Jack Torrance gets over the course of the film. However, if a lesser known or different-looking actor were given the part it might’ve been an even larger surprise when he goes off the deep end later. Still, I can’t fault Nicholson; that’s all in the casting. For his part, he turns Torrance into a deeply troubled man, one whose intentions are good but whose execution leaves something to be desired. And regardless of Nicholson’s crazyface, he is able to draw us in. Specifically, the scene in the big lodge room where he backs Wendy up the stairs is EPIC. During a theatre class in high school, I recited that whole speech and had great fun. It is a superb, small monologue that Nicholson really nails, allowing us to fall headlong into the madness of Torrance. As the film picks up faster and harder towards the end, Nicholson definitely frightens and his performance will always rank high on any list of spectacular acting from horror movies.
The macabre beauty of The Shining is part of its everlasting appeal. All of the imagery is so well shot by Kubrick, photographed by John Alcott. Having a horror film captured through the eyes of Kubrick is magical. From the sets and the meticulously composed shots to the score and soundtrack, this film is every bit a classic. Maybe it doesn’t follow all the rules of horror set before it. Maybe it doesn’t follow King exactly. But I’ll be damned if it’s not amazing. And the horror itself is almost vicious. That scene where Jack finds the woman in the bathtub is something that has scarred generations of film fans. Even as a seasoned horror veteran I find that one moment intense and scary. There are moments of dreadful suspense throughout The Shining that, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, still hold me in fear. The elevator of blood is an iconic piece of imagery because it essentially sums up The Overlook, as a hotel completely immersed in blood, so much so it pours down from the floors above. Just the fact they accomplished that shot is enough to make it utterly mental. But over and over, Kubrick manages to derive absolute horrific madness out of his scenes through the way he captures things, right down to editing; the bathtub woman scene is so profoundly shocking because of how it repeats itself like a memory several times as the corpse reaches out after Jack and he backs away. There are so many fine touches which make this a work of horror that stands the test of time.
Much as I love The Shining, there are certainly issues. Some can pass off Stanley Kubrick’s mistakes by saying certain things to point to his hidden meanings, the deeper layers. Bullshit. As great as this horror is, as much as its done for the genre overall, there are faults. You can still find a movie incredible while admitting to its mistakes. And I don’t always agree with Stephen King, though here I do and find the book much better. Still, Kubrick’s The Shining is chilling, it is meticulously drawn out with great cinematography, practical special effects, and the eerie sounds sitting below all the engaging, terrifying imagery. Despite its flaws, this is and always will be one of the classic pictures in horror bringing Kubrick and his sensibilities to an unlikely genre.