Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1960)

5. Spartacus

In 1959, “Ben-Hur” was released. It became the biggest film of the year and was, at the time, one of the highest grossing films ever made. Historical epics were hotter than ever in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas wanted the title role in “Ben-Hur.” When he lost out on the part, he decided to develop his own Roman Empire epic through his own production company. “Spartacus,” a sprawling epic based on a novel by Howard Fast that was loosely based on reality, was originally meant to be directed by Anthony Mann. Douglas disagreed with Mann and had him fired from the film. Recalling the positive collaboration they had on “Paths of Glory,” Douglas brought Stanley Kubrick onto the film. “Spartacus” would also become a huge commercial and critical success. Kubrick, however, felt the film was a work-for-hire gig and would later – you guessed it – disown it.

“Spartacus” is certainly a fondly recalled part of cinematic history. However, it's production background may arguably be more interesting than the actual finished film. I'm not talking about how filming rolled on for over a year. Or how Kubrick and Douglas argued on set, with the actor nearly attacking the director with a chair at one point. I'm referring to the film's role in ending the Blacklist era. It's a well-known story now. The film was written by a still blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Douglas, however, insisted the screenwriter be given proper credit. This would essentially break the blacklist, ending a dark period in Hollywood history. President Kennedy publicly went to see the film, in solidarity with Trumbo and everyone else on the blacklist. Compared to such political and creative intrigue, the story of a revolting gladiator seems less vital.

The historical basis for “Spartacus” is largely dubious. The real life Spartacus was born a free man, was a veteran before winding up in the gladiator camps, and probably died in combat. The fictional Spartacus was born a slave. He's sent to be a gladiator after biting a slave overseer, enraged at the cruel treatment of his fellow prisoners. From there, “Spartacus” makes its own path.  After seeing a fellow gladiator put to death, and being separated from his beloved, Spartacus leads a uprising among Rome's slaves. Spartacus and his army travel the country, striking back against the empire and freeing every prisoners they encounter. Spartacus soon comes into conflict with Marcus Crassus, a power-hungry general. Crassus soon becomes obsessed with destroying Spartacus.

As I said, Stanley Kubrick ultimately dismissed “Spartacus.” He considered the film the property of Douglas and Trumbo. So this film is essentially a work-for-hire project from one of the highest regarded auteurs in cinematic history. No matter how he felt about the film, you can still see some of Kubrick's trademarks in “Spartacus.” Early scenes in the slave camp features the director's smoothly moving tracking shots, the camera effortlessly sliding into the baths of the compound. That habit crops up a few times throughout the film. Otherwise, “Spartacus” is more defined by those gorgeous, classical Technicolor colors. There are several moments, composed with bright purples and dark blues, that are simply lovely.

Another problem Kubrick had with the script was the titular hero. He thought Douglas' portrayal of Spartacus was overly flawless and bland. This may be true, as Douglas' performance is as heroic as can be. The only flaw Spartacus really has is that he cares too much, putting a friend out of his misery rather than see him suffer on the crucifix. However, Douglas' Spartacus is still a memorable character. Kirk says a lot with a look. When Spartacus is paraded before rich aristocrats, Douglas glares in silent outrage. After escaping and beginning his rebellion, Douglas allows a warmer streak to shine through. He treats his fellow soldiers like family.

Douglas' hero most comes alive when paired with Jean Simmons' Varina. The two don't meet under the best of circumstances. Both are slaves in the gladiator camp, Varina forced to sleep with different men. Despite the scenario, Douglas sells Sparacus' fascination with her beauty. Upon meeting her, his bold admission that he's never been with a woman before is touching. Later, the two share more playful scenes. After being reunited, the two are positively giddy. There's a sweet scene, by a lake, when Spartacus hears that he'll be a father soon. Simmons' performance plays off Douglas extremely well, the two being a charming couple. Their love story adds an effective emotional heart to the epic story.

In some ways, “Spartacus'” treatment of sex and sexuality is surprisingly frank. Varina is ordered to display herself to Spartacus, the audience only seeing her nude back. Later, we see a little more of Simmons during a bathing scene. Pretty salacious stuff for 1960. More notorious is a moment where Crassus, during a bath, reveals his bisexuality to Antoninus in an attempted seduction. The script uses coded language, as Crassus talks about his preference for both “oysters” and “snails.” Yet the intent of the scene must have been obvious even to viewers back then. At the very least, the censors got the gist. Infamously, the conversation was clipped from later prints. When the film was restored in the early nineties, the scene was reinstated. However, the original audio was lost and Olivier's dialogue was dubbed in by none other than Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins' impersonation is uncanny enough that, unless you know he dubbed the lines in, you probably wouldn't notice.

Being an epic production from 1960, “Spartacus” has a loaded supporting cast. Of the notable performers, my favorite is probably Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the slave trader. Ustinov brings a certain comedic energy to the part. Batiatus is involved in a dirty business but considers himself a man of style and grace. Ustinov's humor and clear command of the flamboyant character makes him one of the most memorable characters in the film. I wasn't alone in this estimation, as Ustinov would win an Oscar for the part.

Also appearing in the film is Laurence Olivier as Crassus, the story's villain. Olivier plays the part as a obstructing bureaucrat, self-involved in his own goals. At least until his outrage against Spartacus grows uncontrollable. Charles Laughton is amusing as  Gracchus, playing the part as a mostly bored senator. More often, he does things primarily to spite his enemies. Tony Curtis appears as Antoninus, who is more poet than warrior. Curtis' performance has a certain detached grace, which fits the character. Lastly, I barely recognized a very young Herbert Lom as a pirate envoy. I guess I'm only used to seeing him as an old man.

As you'd expect, “Spartacus” has an epic run time. The most complete version goes on for three hours and fifteen minutes. Impressively, the film rarely ever drags or feels excessively long... Except for the extended scenes devoted to the bureaucracy of ancient Rome. There are quite a few scenes focused on what the Roman Republic should do about this slave uprising. These moments tend to distract from what really drives the film, which is Spartacus himself and his quest. Beyond that, the discussions about ancient Roman politics are quite dry. These are the only scene that dragged down what is, otherwise, an excellently paced motion picture.

Due to the nature of its production, many have seen “Spartacus” as a covert critique of McCarthyism. The topic was likely on Dalton Trumbo's mind. You can see certain aspects of this interpretation, in the story of an individual bucking an oppressive regime. Yet, within Kubrick's overall career, “Spartacus” emerges as another anti-war film. A key moment has the gladiator forced to watch two of his friends fight to the death, the audience seeing more of Spartacus' reaction than the actual fight. Kubrick keeps many of the war sequences off-screen, often focusing more on people's reaction. When the violence is on-screen, it tends to be especially brutal. A guard is stabbed in a bath. Soldiers are set ablaze by a flaming wheel rolling across the battlefield. Another has his arm cleaved right off. Following the film's biggest battle scene, we see a field choked with dead bodies. “Spartacus” focuses on the brutality of war and the cost of combat.

“Spartacus” is an iconic film but in an interesting way. One scene has reverberated through cinematic history, still being referenced and parodied to this day. Yes, I'm talking about the “I'm Spartacus!” scene. And it really is a fantastic sequence. The silent tears on Spartacus' face as his men show such bravery, solidarity, and selflessness is genuinely moving. That one moment is hugely iconic. What's odd is that the movie around isn't nearly as well known or ubiquitous. The scene cast such a shadow over the whole film that, after it comes, “Spartacus” starts to waver a bit, the script heading into an extended denouncement that simply isn't as compelling as the famous moment proceeding it.

Learning that Stanley Kubrick would discard “Spartacus” is clearly another indication of the director's perfectionism and fierce independence. You don't immediately notice the filmmaker's fingerprints on the finished project, though you can find them if you're looking for them. This doesn't mean “Spartacus” is a bad film. It's actually quite beautifully executed, full of fun and polished performances, gorgeous cinematography, and powerful or interesting moments. Though destined to be discarded as a lesser Kubrick, “Spartacus” still functions are a thoroughly successful picture. [Grade: B]

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1957)

4. Paths of Glory

“Paths of Glory” began as a novel, written by Humphrey Cobb. The story was based off a real incident in World War I, where four French soldiers were executed for cowardice. Later, the book was adapted to stage, its anti-war message proving unpopular. As a boy, Kubrick read the novel and it made an impression on him. After “The Killing,” Kirk Douglas expressed an interest in working with Kubrick. Kubrick brought him “Paths of Glory” as a possible project. Douglas admitted the film probably wouldn't make any money but decided the material was too important. He was right. Like the prior stage adaptation, “Paths of Glory” didn't connect with audiences. In time, it would be reevaluated as Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece.

The year is 1916 and World War I rages on. Blood and death fill the trenches of Europe. In a protected chateau, a pair of generals devise a suicide mission to take “The Anthill,” a much-sought piece of German land. A colonel named Dax is left to carry out the mission. As expected, the mission is a massacre, most of the French soldiers dying in the charge. The remaining soldiers refuse to march to their death. This infuriates the general, who wants to fire on his own men. When this plan is refused, he instead decides to try three men for court marshal, to be put to death if found guilty. Dax argues for the men's innocence, against the stubborn incompetence of his superiors.

“Paths of Glory” is one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. It's been said that it's impossible to make a truly anti-war film, as war is an inherently exciting action to portray. Maybe so but Kubrick comes awfully close. The director emphasizes how terrifying combat is. The soldiers are frequently brave but are always scared. The film's central thesis is laid out in a brief scene of two soldiers, talking in the trenches before falling asleep. One solider outright says that everyone is afraid to die. By focusing so clearly on the humanity of those involved, “Paths of Glory” makes it clear that the very act of war – asking someone to die for any cause – is inhumane.

Inhumane and stupid. Something the film especially criticizes are the generals and military leaders that tell soldiers to march off and die. The film begins, not on the battlefield, but in the comfort of an administrative building. There, generals in uniforms covered with medals, in a relaxed manner, decide to send men to their deaths. Later, they nonchalantly devise a random poll to determine which men will be executed, calmly and without much concern. The film is highly critical of military leaders like this, portraying them as avaricious and ignorant. They are more concerned with maintaining appearances than protecting their soldiers' lives, with projecting childish concepts of “bravery.” This is why they threaten to fire on their own men, why they can't conceive of challenging authority for any reason other than getting a promotion. “Paths of Glory” portrays war as horrible but saves must of its venom for those at the top.

Probably the most effective tool “Paths of Glory” employs in de-glamourizing war is how filthy it makes the battlefield look. The trenches, as they were in real life, are damp. It often rains, making sure the area is even more waterlogged. Characters are often streaked with mud and ash. More than once, the horrible stench is mentioned. The battlefield is always cloudy and overcast. When the soldiers die, they do so with blood on their shocked, unmoving, horrified faces. The surroundings are desolate. Bombs are often hear exploding in the distant. The film goes out of its way to emphasize the reality of trench warfare: Filthy, miserable, and awful.

Kubrick's techniques have continued to evolve over his first three features. “Paths of Glory” is the first of Kubrick's film that feels like it belongs to him one hundred percent. The film features most of the director's most famous trademarks. There's a long tracking shot through the trenches early on, establishing how miserable a location that is. This is in comparison to the scenes set in courts and offices. Kubrick often utilizes wide shots here, looking down on the action like a scrutinizing scientist. Yet close-ups are also featured. “Paths of Glory” contains maybe the first instance of the Kubrick Stare: Kirk Douglas, his face shadowed, looks up from under a heavy brow, infuriated and angered by those around him.

The most impressive visual feat Kubrick pulls off in “Paths of Glory” is the sequence devoted to the charge to the front. The scene cuts between brilliantly executed long shots and closer shots of soldiers dying, tossed by explosions. It's a spellbinding moment, because of the technical expertise on-screen. The scene flows with a powerful sense of motion, drawing the viewer in. Yet it's also a horrifying sequence, as it puts the viewer right in the middle of combat. We feel the shattering power of the blast. Nearly every soldier around Dax is cut down, quickly and without mercy.

“Paths of Glory's” Colonel Dax was an ideal part for Kirk Douglas. Douglas' frequently came across on-screen as the thinking man's hero. His cleft chin and iconic jawline gave him a suitably heroic appearance, seeing him often cast in adventure films. Yet Douglas always brought a compassionate and thoughtful quality to his protagonists. This is especially apparent in Dax. Douglas spends the entire movie, hoping that empathy and common sense will proceed. Up until the end, he attempts to keep hope. After the soldiers are executed, Douglas' unleashes rage on the commanding officers, a deeply cathartic moment. Douglas' Dax is a rare hero, one that stands for his fellow man, for loyalty and reason.

Opposing him is one of the most simpering, infuriating villains in cinema history. General Mireau is played by George Macready. Mireau's establishing character moment occurs early on, when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier, demands the clearly traumatized man's condition doesn't exist, and orders him to be taken away. Every one of Mireau's actions are petty. He demands the cannon operators fire on his own soldier when they start to retreat from the Anthill. Mireau's performance might appear to be over-the-top but the character is so chilling precisely because it's not overdone. Evil like this – mundane evil motivated by greed and ego – is all too real.

The film's cast is excellent, over all. The actors playing the condemned men are especially impressive. Ralph Meeker, sporting a distinctive scar through the film's second half, seems to maintain his composure at first As the days before the execution stretch on, his strength begins to weaken. When faced with a Champlain, he has some choice words for the man. Joe Turkel's Private Arnaud stands before the court, chosen at random to die despite a lauded war record. Turkel's indignation at suffering this fate clear, up until he's even robbed of that by an injury. Lastly, Timothy Carey's performance as Private Ferol is heartbreaking. At first sardonic, Ferol unravels more and more, as the date of the execution draws closer, exposing a raw humanity.

The biggest blow against the concept of a heroic war that “Paths of Glory” makes is the idea that there's any glory, any dignity, in death. Kubrick draws out the execution as long as possible. We see the condemned men walk slowly to the shooting gallery. Carey's Ferol spends the entire walk crying out, weeping, collapsing into an emotional wreck. He faces death like a real human being: Terrified and desperate. He is still weeping when the bullets hit him. There's no pomp or circumstance to the deaths themselves. The rifles cry out and the men collapse. Kubrick portrays the death as senseless and ugly, which is exactly what they are.

“Paths of Glory” is a grim film but not an entirely pessimistic one. The film's final scene is uniquely powerful. Douglas' Dax looks into a rowdy bar, the soldiers yelling at a captured German girl brought out to sing. Yet the girl's beautiful voice eventually silences them. Soon, the men are singing along with her, some of them shedding tears. It's a scene that suggests empathy isn't impossible, that the cruelty of war does not necessarily flatten a sense of compassion. Unlike the tacked on happy ending of “Killer's Kiss,” the slightly hopeful conclusion of “Paths of Glory” is earned and powerful.

Like many of Kubrick's films, “Paths of Glory” has only grown in esteem over the years. Initially, the film was controversial, some contemporary writers bristling at its obvious anti-war themes. The film was even banned in France, due to its depiction of the country's military. In time, “Paths of Glory” would be recognized as the startling condemnation of war that it is. While sometimes overlooked due to the high place in film history Kubrick's later films occupy, the movie is certainly one worth seeking out. Few other films draw attention to the senselessness of war with such grace and power. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1956)

3. The Killing

Stanley Kubrick's “The Killing” happened almost by accident. The director struck up a friendship with James B. Harris over chess. The two would form a production company together. Legend had it that the team, originally, wanted to adapt “The Snatchers” by Lionel White. However, censorship at the team prevented a film about kidnapping from being made. As a last minute replacement, Kubrick and Harris decided to adapt another White novel, “Clean Break.” Kubrick butted heads with United Artist, the film's distributor, who feared the film was too confusing and didn't star a big enough name. Out of adversity emerges greatness. “The Killing” was the director's breakthrough film.

A quartet of men plan a daring daytime heist. Johnny orchestrates a scheme to steal two million dollars from a race track. It's an inside job, the teller and bartenders helping to carry out the plan. A horse will be shot on the track and a wrestler will start a fight in the bar, helping to distract the cops. One of those cops is also part of the deal. The heist goes off with only a few problems, the thieves grabbing the money and making it out of the race track. However, there are outside factors to consider. The teller's wife becomes privy to the plan, disrupting things. Fate will have its say too.

“Killer's Kiss” was Kubrick's first experiment with film noir. That movie had the look but dialed back on the genre's typically cynical worldview. “The Killer” functions in the other direction. Most of the movie is set in daylight, leaving fewer opportunities for stylish, urban shadows. (Though Kubrick still sneaks in some.) “The Killing's” opinion on humanity, however, is black as pitch. It's a movie about thieves, scoundrels, liars, and killers. The lives of animals or other humans mean little to them. The only reason the men have to trust each other is their mutual greed. Love between husband and wife is no guarantee. Betrayal is commonplace. Violence is intense. When a man attempts to reach out in friendship, he's greeted with a racial slur. In short: The world of “The Killing” is not a nice one.

Throughout his career, Kubrick would often call upon his history as a documentary filmmaker, adding realism to his film. This habit begins in earnest with “The Killing.” A narration was added to the film by the studio, against the director's wishes, in hopes of making the story clearer. However, the narration has the effect of making “The Killing” seem like the record of real events. Adding to this effect is the way the story plays out. “The Killing's” construction is non-linear. The film often cuts to the events as they happen, before cutting back later to portray them from a different perspective. Now imagine a news article that pieces together witness testimonies, giving an impression of something from multiple view points. The effect is the same in “The Killing,” the movie feeling like a beat-for-beat recreation of an actual heist.

Kubrick's visual design, already strong in “Killer's Kiss,” makes another huge leap forward in “The Killing.” The contrast between stillness and movement seen is further emphasized here. There are long scenes in “The Killing” devoted to people having tense conversations. Kubrick will film the talks in a wider take, showing everyone sitting at a table. These stiller moments are broken up with smooth transitional shots, the camera rolling towards the door of an apartment. Another of the director's trademarks – the Kubrick stare – appears in an embryonic form here. We see a dying man, his face spotted with bullet wounds, glare in a shadowy corner of a room. Proceeding that moment is an impressive point-of-view shot, tracking the same injured man as he walks through a room littered with dead bodies. Added to this already impressive visual mix are some noir-ish shadows, a lone lamp punctuating the darkness of a seedy room or a parrot chirping in a shaded nook.

During pre-production, Stanley Kubrick wrote an outline of “The Killing.” He then passed the outline to veteran crime writer Jim Thompson. Thompson fleshed out the characters and the dialogue, further contributing to the film's hard-boiled atmosphere. The film's memorable dialogue is obviously the work of Thompson. There's a number of quotable lines in “The Killing.” When Johnny meets a snooping Sherry, he threatens to put her head in her hands. She counters by saying it would look better “on his shoulder.” A minute later, he tells her she has “a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.” The dirty cop is called “a funny kind of cop.” The opera “Pagiliacci” is memorably referenced at one point. It's not exactly realistic but the stylized dialogue is undeniably unforgettable.

The title of “The Killing” suggests violence. Fittingly, the film is a pretty violent movie for 1956. At first, Kubrick's approach to physical violence is more subtle. We only hear a woman being slapped in one scene, the actual blow left off-screen. However, as the film goes on, as the situation becomes graver, the action becomes gorier. The hotel room shoot-out explodes into graphic violence. Buckshot is left in a man's face, his cheeks spotted with bloody wounds. The floor is strewn with dead bodies, the camera lingering on their fatal injuries. Life is cheap in “The Killing.” The violence, both realistic and blunt, reflects this.

At least, it does in all but one scene. As part of the set-up, Johnny hires Maurice, a former professional wrestler, to start a bar fight as a distraction. That fight scene is surprisingly theatrical. Maurice knocks people across the bar. Several flips are performed on the security cops, moves that wouldn't look out of place on the wrestling mat. Maurice even gets his shirt ripped off, in a moment that borders the absurd. On one hand, a fist fight this elaborate probably doesn't belong in a grounded, gritty film like “The Killing.” Yet it's such a striking sequence. Kubrick's direction is fierce, getting right into the action as blows are traded and men topple.

Sterling Hayden was the star that United Artist argued wasn't a big enough name to carry “The Killing.” Whatever his box office value, Hayden's performance is an excellent one. He plays Johnny as a hardened man with his eyes on the prize. Hayden brings a fantastic threatening power to several of his scene. Most notably, in the scene where he sticks up the race track tellers, his stern voice coming from behind a rubber hobo mask. Johnny is a hardened crook but the film attempts to humanize the character by giving him a girlfriend. Colleen Gray as Fay gets second billing and is charming enough. Despite this, she only appears in the beginning and ending scene. I honestly forgot about her by the time she reappeared. The character isn't distracting but is unnecessary. Johnny doesn't apologize for his criminal ways and neither should the movie.

The most compelling subplot in the film concerns George and his philandering wife, Sherry. George is played by Elisha Cook Jr. Cook's demeanor is weaselly and nervous. He seems to be the most morally upright member of the gang. He nearly quits the scheme several times before the heist. On the day of, his nervousness is visible. Cook's performance is wide-eyed, his terrified flop-sweat palatable. Playing Sherry is Marie Windsor. Windsor's beauty hides a malicious streak. She only married George becomes she thought he would be rich one day. She's only stays with him after hearing about the heist. Even then, she plots to steal the money with her boyfriend. Sherry is the femme fatale in this noir, a wicked woman only interested in her own neck. Yet Windsor's performance gives her further depth, making her almost seem like a victim of circumstance.

The rest of the cast is solid too. Joe Sawyer plays Mike, the bartender. Mike is a sympathetic character too, caring for a bed-ridden sick wife. He also considers leaving the heist behind, in a scene where he asks Johnny if they should run off together. (Feel free to read into the romantic possibilities of that statement.) Sawyer has an everyman quality, seeming like a normal guy dragged into something frightening. Ted de Corsia as Randy, the dirty cop, is less sympathetic. De Corsia effectively cuts the shape of a scumbag. Kola Kwariani plays the wrestler, which is fitting since Kwariani was a pro-wrestler in real life. Interestingly, Kwariani actually gives off an intellectual vibe in his few scenes. Lastly, Timothy Carey is suitably sleazy as the lying, racist sharpshooter. Having Carey hold a puppy, before marching off to kill a horse, was an interesting choice.

Another tantalizing element of “The Killers” is the role luck plays in the story. In any story where a criminal plan is explained to the audience, you expect it to go wrong. It wouldn't make for a very interesting film is everything went according to plan. Yet the monkey wrenches “The Killers” throw around are especially random. Nobody could have prepared for Sherry's treachery in the last act. Bad traffic leads to Johnny arriving a few minutes too late to make a difference. The stolen money is revealed after falling off a cart at the airport, a random act no one could've prepared. Kubrick hints at this early on. A discarded horseshoe becomes a symbol of inverse luck, piercing a tire and leading to a death. This makes bad luck a theme of “The Killing,” showing how even the best laid plans can't compensate for arbitrary chance.

“The Killing” was not a box office success upon release in 1956. Unsure of what to do with the picture, United Artists stuck it on the back-half of a double feature with a forgotten film named “Bandido!” Despite this, “The Killing” would become a critical favorite. The praise attracted the attention of Kurt Douglas, making Kubrick's next two films possible, and effectively birthing the director's career. Unlike his previous two features, Kubrick would not disown “The Killing,” suggesting he was satisfied with the finished product too. By the way, “The Snatchers” would be adapted to screen eventually, in 1969 as “The Night of the Following Day,” a picture that isn't discussed much. Unlike his characters, it seems luck was with Kubrick on this one. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1955)

2. Killer’s Kiss

Following the release of “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick would return to the world of documentary shorts. After making one more of those, he would take a second whack at feature filmmaking. “Killer's Kiss” was shot in a similar fashion as the director's debut. It was made with little money, most of the budget being raised by Kubrick himself. The film was shot in locations the crew sneaked into, as they couldn't afford permits. However, “Killer's Kiss” would be far more widely seen. United Artist would acquire the film, giving it a decent release. Later, Kubrick would also dismiss “Killer's Kiss” as the work of an amateur. Unlike “Fear and Desire,” he allowed the movie to remain in circulation, suggesting he must've thought it wasn't too bad.

Davey Gordon is a boxer but not a very good one. After loosing another fight, he decides to retire. He becomes infatuated with the girl who lives in the building across from his. He learns that her name is Gloria and she works as a taxi dancer in a nightclub. The two begin a whirlwind romance and make plans to get out of New York City. Gloria's boss, a thug named Vincent Rapalla, is also romantically obsessed with the girl. After discovering the two are leaving town, he attempts to have Davey killed. Davey's manager is killed by mistake, forcing the washed-up boxer to take the fight to Rapalla.

With “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick aimed for the art house. This release pattern did not allow the film to be seen by many people. With his second feature, it seems the director decided to make a movie in a popular genre. Broadly, “Killer's Kiss” is a crime film, full of tough guys, thugs, hoods, and floozy dames. The film is also set in the back-alleys and abandoned buildings of New York City. These elements combine to place the film squarely within the film noir genre. The result clearly didn't please the director very much and I have no idea how successful “Killer's Kiss” was at the box office. However, this did earn the filmmaker a deal with United Artist, so I'm going to say this strategy worked out better.

By taking the already precise eye he displayed in “Fear and Desire” and adapting it to the film noir genre, Kubrick creates some truly memorable images. The film is thick with shadows. When the hired thugs corner Gordon's manager, we are treated to a series of shots in an alleyway. The men's shadows are projected against an brick wall which is nearly obscured by shadows itself. A chase across an abandoned building features a masterful shot of the protagonist standing atop the structure, a barely distinct man among a black outline. Kubrick is determined to put the noir in film noir, creating a film characterized by dark corridors and shadowy outcomes.

Kubrick's visual pellucidity is apparent in other ways. The layout in “Killer's Kiss” is almost playful at times. When Davey enters his apartment, Gloria is visible through the window of the neighboring building. His apartment is dark while Gloria's room is brightly lit, which visually illustrates how large the girl looms on the man's mind. In rage, Rapalla throws something at a mirror. The audience is given a POV shot of the mirror shattering, seeing the broken glass fall over the screen. The stand-out moment in “Killer's Kiss” is almost totally divorced from the narrative. Gloria explains her backstory to Davey, talking about a sick father, a dead mother, a ballerina sister, and a sudden windfall of money. While this blatant exposition is laid on the audience, we are treated to the image of the ballerina performing on-stage. Combined with the increasingly grim words and the mounting music, a sense of unease is added to the graceful dancing. It's an intriguing way to subvert typical genre expectations – the exposition might be boring so here's a neat visual – while also establishing the movie's tone of uncertain dread.

While Kubrick's absolute control over his films is already apparent even in his sophomore film, “Killer's Kiss” is also surprisingly loose at times. While Davey waits for Gloria to exit the dance club, there's a scene of him milling about on the streets. I'm sure it was perfectly planned this way but, in practice, this scene comes off as partially improvised. There's this sense of back-and-forth in “Killer's Kiss,” with some scenes being perfectly constructed and others being more natural. The boxing scenes take place in the ring, full of quick cuts and sudden movements. The fight feels both spontaneous and meticulously executed. This contrast is present in the story too, as “Killer's Kiss” takes place in a world of both brutality and gracefulness.

Kubrick manages to put his own spin on a genre film with “Killer's Kiss.” There's only one aspect of the film that the director was clearly not invested in. The film's central love story is not entirely convincing. Davey and Gloria fall in love over the course of two days. They only have two scenes together before the story begins really moving. It's hard to believe that a couple would run off together after such a short time. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that Davey would be willing to kill to protect Gloria after such a short time. In order for the film to work, you just have to swallow certain narrative contrivances.

The film is built around three performances. Jamie Smith stars as Davey Gordon. Smith's only other film role is something called “The Faithful City” from 1952. The rest of his acting career was spent on television  In “Killer's Kiss,” Smith is a reliable lead actor. Smith mostly strikes the viewer as an everyman, a normal guy roped into something way over his head. He also gets a decent character arc. Davey goes from a underachieving boxer to a guy fighting for his life, the film's final scenes of violence contrasting nicely with the earlier boxing match.

Irene Kane co-stars as Gloria. Kane, who would go by Chris Chase later in life, also had a limited career in film. She has four television credits and would appear, years down the line, in “All That Jazz.” Kane plays a classical femme fatale in “Killer's Kiss” and is probably the film's most interesting character. As the story continues, the viewer is left wondering if Gloria actually does having feelings for Davey. Is she just manipulating him, using the naive young man as a way to escape her abusive boss? It's not until the last scene that we know for sure. Kane does a good job of playing this ambiguity.

Frank Silvera returns from “Fear and Desire” as Rapalla, the film's villain. The tough guy image Silvera displayed in Kubrick's previous film is still shown off here. Silvera is, after all, a heavy and plays his character as fittingly thuggish. Yet there's another layer to Rapalla. He's not motivated by greed or anger but love. Granted, it's a twisted, obsessive, and selfish love. Still, that characterizes him as somewhat different from your usual crime movie bad guy. Silvera adds an extra layer of grease and sleaze to his part, drinking too much in a few scenes, making the character extra memorable.

To call “Killer's Kiss” an action film is charitable. However, the movie does show the director's approach to violence changing for a more stylized direction. The film's latter half is occupied with a decent chase, Davey being run around the building This leads to the movie's impressive conclusion. Kubrick picked a mannequin factory for the climax, which was an inspired choice. Framing our hero's run around disembodied limbs and faces is effectively eerie. When Davey and Rapalla come to blows, they swing the mannequin parts as bludgeons. The weapons they chose for their final fight is an axe and a harpoon, emphasizing once again the brutality of the movie's world.

We don't know what kind of resolution Kubrick envisioned for “Killer's Kiss” originally. We just know that United Artist insisted he give the movie a happy ending. It's pretty easy to picture what the director had in mind initially. The ending rests on whether Gloria will meet Davey at the train station, whether or not her feelings are true. In the version that was released, she does arrive and the film ends with the lovers embracing. I suspect Gloria's affections were less than genuine in Kubrick's original ending. As it is, the happier ending works okay. After what Davey has been through, it's nice to see him get a positive outcome.

Considering what a deciding perfectionist he was, Stanley Kubrick being dissatisfied with “Killer's Kiss” isn't shocking. The director might have considered the film a disappointing effort but it's actually a sturdy little noir. The themes are standard but the execution is above average, Kubrick already bringing a unique visual and narrative style to his films. It emerges as a somewhat experimental take on the story of a dangerous woman and shaky loyalties, all among the seedy streets of New York City. [Grade: B] 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1953)

As a young film fan, who was just beginning to learn and had so much left to see, Stanley Kubrick was one of the few directors above criticism. This was me purely parroting the words of other writers I respected, as I had only seen a few of the director's movies by that point. Yet, even to my youthful eyes, it was apparent how influential and important Kubrick, a viable candidate for Greatest Director Who Ever Lived, was. The internet probably doesn't need another series dissecting Kubrick's films but there's no way I wasn't going to cover him in time. Stanley Kubrick made some of my favorites and each of his projects are worth exactly as much discussion as his rabid fan base suggests.

1. Fear and Desire

In the early fifties, Stanley Kubrick was not the iconic filmmaker, the auteur's auteur, he is known as today. Instead, his day job was as a photographer for “Look” magazine. He had spun this career into directing two documentary short films. Figuring he had enough experience, he decided to make a feature. “Fear and Desire” was funded by friends and family of Kubrick. It was made with a small crew and an even tinier cast. It was shot without sound, dialogue being dubbed in during post-production. The film was picked up by an art house distributor. It received positive reviews but was seen by few people. Later, Kubrick would pull the film out of distribution himself, “Fear and Desire” becoming a rare object of fascination for the filmmaker's rabid fans.

The film is set in the forest during an unspecified war. A plane has crashed, stranding four soldiers behind enemy lines. It's only a six mile walk back into friendly territory but the woods are spotted with hostile soldiers. Lt. Corby tries to keep the spirits high but is uncertain of his own leadership. Sgt. Mac is more angry about the situation while the stress is getting too Privates Fletcher and Sidney. Soon, the group decide to build a raft and float down river. Along the way, they encounter a foreign woman and a camp occupied by enemy soldiers. As the day goes on, none of them become certain that they'll survive.

“Fear and Desire” is almost self-consciously arty at times. The film begins with a narrator pointing out that this could be any war, the conflict explicitly remaining undefined. We have no idea which country the different soldiers are fighting for. This penchant for narration continues throughout the film's brief one hour run time. Characters' thoughts often fill the soundtrack, expounding on the nature of their situation. The film is loosely plotted, essentially being a series of random encounters between the different characters. The dialogue tends towards the verbose, the themes frequently spelled out. The film was made for the art house, an intentionally vague experience attempting to hint at some deeper meaning.

So what meaning can one grasp from “Fear and Desire?” Kubrick's debut is obviously an anti-war piece. It focuses on the philosophical quandaries the soldiers feel as they face death, both killing and being killed. The weaker among them are driven mad. Even the stronger ones grapple with their own mortality. The film concludes with only two of the boys making it home. They are sent to search for their missing comrades, wondering if any man is made for war. We get it: War is insanity, a cruel act that makes men mad. You can look deeper, the central river becoming a metaphorical River Styx, leading two of the cast members to their graves. Over all, Kubrick's intentions are not subtle.

Even this early in his career, Kubrick had a precise, keen eye for visuals. He creates some striking images throughout “Fear and Desire.” Early on, the quartet of soldiers come upon a cabin, occupied by two enemy men eating a meal. Kubrick films the attack in close angles. He focuses on the faces, of the attackers and the soon-to-be-dead. He repeatedly cuts to a clenched fist, squeezing a loaf of bread apart. Later, the stillness of the dead bodies are emphasized, in a haunting shot of the corpses on the floor. (This is but one scene where Kubrick's past as a photographer becomes apparent.) Later scenes, like the shoulders wandering through the fog or a man standing in the center of a river, are impressive. The use of lighting, the black and white photography, is strong for such a piecemeal production.

For a war film, “Fear and Desire” is short on combat. The director keeps practically all blood off-screen. The approach to violence is nevertheless blunt. A stabbing scene focuses on the unseen impact of the blade, on the twitching eyes of the dying. Later, shots from a rifle throws a man backwards violently. One of the more memorable moments has a dying soldier crawl through a door. After his last breath leaves his body, his head falls to the wooden floor with a thud. Kubrick was clearly attempting to portray how cold, sudden, and senseless the violence of war is without becoming exploitative. He's somewhat successful, as the death scenes are generally effective.

As half of the title suggests, death isn't the only thing on the film's mind. Desire and sex comes up too. There's no discussion of sweethearts back home however. Instead, midway through the film, the gang of four come upon a group of women working in the river. They capture one of the women, tying her to a tree. That image of casual bondage is only the beginning. After being left alone with the girl, Pvt. Sidney begins to romance her. The problem is, he's gone totally around the end by this point. The threat of rape hangs in the air, making the audience increasingly uncomfortable as Sidney's mad ramblings become more violent. Kubrick doesn't go there and the episode ends without much satisfaction. Yet the sequence was obviously inserted into the film to comment on the push and pull between sex and death, creation and destruction, another theme clearly on the movie's mind.

Of the six credited actors in “Fear and Desire,” the film was the debut performance of four of them. Only Frank Silvera and Stephen Coit had prior credits. This was clearly a green cast. The performances are uneven. Silvera, as the hardened Mac, is clearly the stand-out role, coming off as crusty and confident. Virginia Leath, who would later gain cult movie infamy as Jan in a Pan from “The Brain That Wouldn't Die,” appears as the girl tied to a tree. She has little dialogue but Leath's panicked eyes manage to say a lot. The rest of the cast is less certain. Coit and Kenneth Hart have dual roles, also playing enemy soldiers that appear later in the film. Coit and Hart aren't strong enough performers to disguise the change. Hart does alright as the heroic Corby but Coit as Pvt. Fletcher is less well defined. Paul Mazursky, who would later become a notable director, plays Pvt. Sidney. Mazursky's performance is wild-eyed and manic yet also oddly stiff.

As a loosely plotted film, “Fear and Desire” frequently digresses from its main point. Sometimes, these shifts are more interesting than others. The men eating the cold stew they stole from the soldiers they just murdered is intriguing. As is a brief encounter with a dog, who later runs home to the enemy head-quarters. The canine seems to be another element the film hopes to endow with a deeper, symbolic meaning. The dog is unaware of the lines of combating nation. He only seeks comfort where he can find it. These moments are intriguing, even if they don't quite justify the film's rambling pace.

However, other digressions come off as ponderous and unnecessary. After being reunited with their pooch, the enemy general launches into a long monologue about the nature of war. This is the moment in “Fear and Desire” that most tested my patience. The film is not only hammering home its own point, it's doing so with characters we aren't even invested in. There's other stuff in “Fear and Desire” that probably could've been cut without loosing too much. Like the men leaping back and forth onto a road, seeing if it's occupied. Even the encounter with the girl ends up having little effect on the overall story. This frequently feels like a short that was expanded to feature length.

“Fear and Desire” was obviously put together on a low budget. The film's soundtrack is loud and thundering, at odds with the introspective tone. I doubt this was library music – Gerald Fried, who would score Kubrick's next three movies, is credited with composing the score – but it certainly sounds like it. Most of the scenes take place within the same small stretch of forest. The sets and cast are minimal. You can see the future filmmaker Kubrick would become in a few scenes but “Fear and Desire” is still clearly the work of a beginner, made with limited funds and a small production team.

Considering the perfectionist he would grow into, it's not surprising to read that Kubrick would quickly disown “Fear and Desire.” You can easily imagining him turning his nose up at an occasionally rough first effort like this. The story behind the film's withdraw from circulation is arguably more interesting than the actual movie. The distributor died in an airplane crash a few months after the film's initial release. Afterwards, Kubrick would attempt to buy up every commercially available copy, destroying them personally, determined to bury what he considered an embarrassing debut. For years, the only way to see “Fear and Desire” were via scratchy bootlegs or rare theatrical screenings at the occasional festival. The film had fallen into the public domain by this point but the director still went out of his way to discourage people from seeing it.  In 2011, long after Kubrick's death, a print was restored and “Fear and Desire” was released on DVD and Blu-Ray the next year, for all to see.

The film's present day wide-spread availability – thanks to Youtube, it's just a click away – would probably infuriate Kubrick. Watching “Fear and Desire” after years of speculating about its content, is an interesting experience. Yes, it's something of an amateur effort. However, the film still provides interesting glimpses at the enormous talent to come. This is ultimately the primary reason to see “Fear and Desire,” to witness an embryonic Kubrick, forging his first work as a serious filmmaker. It's not like someone who isn't a Kubrick fan is going to stumble upon this. [Grade: C+]

Monday, July 31, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

What started as seemingly another cynical attempt to relaunch a long dormant franchise unexpectedly became one of the most beloved modern sci-fi series. The new decade's “Planet of the Apes” series are popular with audiences but have been even better received by critics and serious film fans. Now, as these things tend to, the trilogy seemingly reaches its conclusion. “War for the Planet of the Apes” builds upon the last two films in audacious ways, resulting in a summer blockbuster that is thematically complex and emotionally bracing. The result may be one of the best films of the year.

The war between the humans and the apes have raged for quite some time. Caesar has led his apes into hiding, only fighting back when attacked, making several concessions towards peace. Koba's remaining followers have aligned themselves with an extremist human sect called Alpha-Omega. The group's unbalanced leader, McCullough, leads a strike against Caesar's base, killing his wife and son. Bereaved, Caesar instructs his tribe to leave for greener pastures while he sets off on a mission of revenge. He discovers two things: That the still-lingering virus is transforming humans into mute, unintelligent brutes. And that Alpha-Omega are enslaving apes, running a prison camp, forcing them to build weapons to fight both humans and apes.

Andy Serkis' Caesar continues to be one of the most complex protagonists in modern sci-fi cinema. Motion capture technology has evolved to uncanny heights, as these apes are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. This allows Serkis' already impressive performance more depth. He carries a heavy, world-weary expression on his brow. Furthermore, the film delves deeply into the cost of vengeance. After deciding he has to destroy McCullough, Caesar is haunted by nightmares of Koba. He worries he is becoming a monster himself, loosing his compassion and level-headedness to grief and madness. This is the cost of war in microcosm, showing that the kind of hard decisions combat forces people to make rots away at the soul.

This theme is further explored in the character of Colonel McCullough. First off, Woody Harrelson is terrifying in the part. He delivers an incredibly intense monologue to a captured Caesar, explaining how he murdered his own son to protect his people. His troops revere him with an almost religious awe. They paint their own symbol over the American flag, branding their weapons and slaves with it. Yet the film goes out of it ways to paint parallels between McCullough and Caesar. Both have lost a child to the conflict. Both are motivated by protecting their people. Both have been forced to make hard decision in the heat of battle. The difference is Caesar struggles with his conscious while McCullough has been overtaken by the madness of war.

In fact, director Matt Reeves and his team seem eager to build deeper references into the film. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the second simian-themed film of the year to reference “Apocalypse Now,” which is an interesting trend. Caesar being tormented and stoned by his captors bring the Christ story to mind. The ape freeing his people from oppressors and leading them on a journey through the desert recalls Exodus. It also brings “Spartacus” to mind. Yet recent events seem equally on the film's mind. McCullough fills his speech with an anti-outsider rhetoric. He drapes his camp in the American flag but seems ignorant of its meaning. He's also, it must be noted, is obsessed with building a wall on a border. And he's going to make the apes pay for it. “War for the Planet of the Apes” makes its story of the fall of the human empire more potent with parallels to our current political quagmire.

Whatever lofty ideas “War for the Planet of the Apes” has, it also understands that it is still an action movie. It satisfies on that front too. The film begins with a bracing battle sequence, Reeves' camera placed right in the trenches, walking side-by-side apes and humans. The battle gets chaotic but never becomes difficult to follow. Later, we are treated to a tense horse-back chase. The film's conclusion is packed with giant explosions and gun fights. It's viscerally exciting without ever loosing track of the people (and apes) on the ground.  Mostly, “War for the Planet of the Apes” fills its run time with suspense. As Caesar's allies attempt to free him from the prison camp, the audience is constantly left wandering if someone will be caught, if the cast will successfully navigate this new roadblock.

Naturally, “War for the Planet of the Apes” peppers its plot with homages to the original series. The outside of McCullough's camp is decorated with deceased apes, strung up like the scarecrows in the original film. Most pivotal is a new character, a mute girl that is adopted by the apes. She is later named Nova. That's but one lovable new addition to the cast. Steve Zahn appears as Bad Ape, an eccentric ape whose mind has been slightly scattered by years in isolation. Zahn proves a fantastic source of comic relief. Which is nice, considering “War” is an otherwise very serious affair.

I continue to admire the guts of this series. “War for the Planet of the Apes” continues a pricey sci-fi franchise that features few human characters, tackles heavy themes and has long scenes in subtitled sign language. “War” also presents interesting possibilities for the future. One story arc is concluded but future films have some tantalizing opportunities ahead. The latest film is maybe the most entry in the rebooted series, proving amazingly effective as blockbuster entertainment and smartly executed drama. [9/10]

Sunday, July 30, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprise hit, insomuch that a big budget reboot of a long-running and beloved film series can be a surprise. Maybe the surprise came from the movie actually being pretty good. A franchise had been reborn. A sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” would arrive in theaters two years later. Director Matt Reeves, previously of “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In,” would take the directorial reins. Reeves delivered a film nearly as thoughtful and action-packed as its predecessor. Though the generic title would be mocked – seriously, they couldn't have called it “Rebellion on the Planet of the Apes” or something? – the second entry in the new “Apes” would prove to be another success, both critically and financially.

A decade has past since Caesar led his rebellion of apes. In that time, a virus – called Simian Flu by the public – has ravaged the human population. The apes have built a society in the forest, uncertain if humanity even still survives. Until a chance encounter in the woods with a group of survivors. The human are attempting to reach a near-by dam, so they can power their city. Caesar reluctantly allows them to go about their business. However, the truce infuriates Koba, who still hates human. Soon, the enraged ape attempts to kill Caesar and engineers a war against humankind.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” asks the question if peace between two hostile forces can ever possible. Caesar is now in the role of leader and peacekeeper. At film's beginning, he's a father, having beget two sons with his mate. He has found peace in the woods with his ape brothers. He distrust humanity but doesn't want war either, valuing ape life too much. Yet Koba forces his hand, fate making the decision for him. Andy Serkis' motion-capture performance continues to be highly expressive and thoughtful. You can see the quality that went into the character, from both the writing and the actor. “Dawn” is committed to maintaining the complexity of the protagonist displayed in the previous movie.

The other apes are not as complicated as Caesar but are nevertheless interesting. As in the last film, there are long scenes featuring just apes, dialogue mostly told through subtitled sign language. Maurice the orangutan continues to be a likable presence while Caesar's son, Rocket, gets several key scenes. The second most memorable ape is Koba, rising from supporting character to primary antagonist. Toby Kobell plays the part as someone whose heart has been calcified by hate and abuse. Koba has good reason to hate humans, as shown in a powerful scene where he points to his scars. There's not much more to him than that but his tenacity and viciousness makes him a convincing, threatening villain anyway.

“Dawn” focuses more on action than its predecessors. The film begins with a thrilling hunt, where the apes spear several deer and end up struggling with a bear. The CGI is a little wonky in this first scene – the bear and deer don't look as good as the apes – but it still works. The film really ramps up when Koba begins his assault on the human city. The sight of a crowd of apes racing into the streets, hooting and hollering, is effectively chilling. Chimps firing machine guns and riding horses is an irresistible, pulpy image. Reeves throws in an impressive tracking show, showing Koba throwing the drivers from a tank and manning the gun himself in one continuous take. The final struggle between Caesar and Koba, set inside a crumbling tower, makes use of the ape's acrobatic abilities.

The focus is more on the apes than ever before but “Dawn” still features some token, supporting humans. The most notable is Gary Oldman as Dreyfus. The leader of the human settlement, Dreyfus is some sort of war veteran. Oldman brings a shaky desperation to the part, playing him as a man who has lost much and is uncertain of how strong he is. Jason Clarke, that one actor who kept getting cast in big movies a few years ago for some reason, appears as Malcolm. The man who makes contact with the apes, and becomes an unlikely ally, Clarke is sound if unremarkable. Kodi Smit-McPhee has a nice role as Clarke's teenage son, who lugs around a tattered copy of Charles Burns' “Black Hole.” I wish we saw more of Keri Russell as Ellie, Malcolm's wife, who brings some sturdy emotion to her few scenes.

I'd probably consider “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” the weakest of the new “Apes” trilogy. Caesar's conflict in this film is not as compelling as in the other two. The story hits some expected story beats a little too hard. It's still a quality motion picture. The special effects have improved greatly from the first one. The scope is admirable. Reeves' direction is impressive. The cast, especially the mo-cap performers, are really good. The script is still surprisingly complex, considering the kind of movie this is. This is still a planet worth visiting. [7/10]