Friday, August 18, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, August 14, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Tim Burton's unpopular 2000 attempt. Oddly, the idea seems to have originated outside of the company. Screenwriter-producer Rick Jaffa cooked up an inspired reinvention to the “Apes” series and sold it to the Fox. This new series would be about apes, not humans. After cycling through two titles – the unwieldy “Genesis: Apes” and the too generic “Rise of the Apes” – the project would hit theater screens as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” In an age of excessive spectacle, the film would win praise for putting characters and concepts above action. From the moment it arrived, the new “Apes” series has represented a more intellectual form of summer blockbuster.
The film begins, not in the distant future, but the modern day. Dr. Will Rodman is determined to cure Alzheimer's, a personal mission motivated by his father's illness. He tests the experimental compound on a chimpanzee, which immediately becomes more intelligence. The off-spring of Will's best student shows especially impressive skills. Named Caesar, Will and his recovering father treat the chimp like family. Despite his intelligence, Caesar is separated from his human family and placed in a cruel ape preserve. There, the hyper-capable ape sees the way man abuses his kind and begins to plot an uprising, using the same drug to make the other apes as smart as him.
post-human blockbuster. His family may treat him kindly but even they see Caesar as less than human, despite his intellect. When faced with the cruelty of the rest of the world, the inevitable revolt seems perfectly justified. “Rise” puts the audience in the shoes – or bare feet, as it were – of animals too often abused by mankind.
It's a deeply empathetic approach and it wouldn't have worked if Caesar wasn't a compelling character. “Rise's” special effects were widely praised upon release. It's been six years and the CGI has aged a little. The eyes and faces aren't quite right. But Caesar and his simian friends are still convincing, expressive creations. The heart of the character is ultimately more important. Andy Serkis' motion capture performance is one for the ages. Caesar's reaction to seeing a dog on a leash, while he himself is leashed, is touching. The audience feels his pain, when he's separated from his human family. When Caesar finally speaks – screaming “NO!,” as foretold in the original series – the emotion is overwhelming. Caesar may be a CGI chimpanzee but he's a fully formed character, beautifully brought to life by Serkis and the effects team.
love-it-or-hate-it screen presence. He doesn't bring anything special to the role of Will but he's not unlikable either. His romance with Freida Pinto's nurse isn't much to write about though. Better is John Lithgow as Franco's father. Lithgow makes the character's dementia heartbreaking. His struggles are tear-jerking, Lithgow's performance being especially vulnerable, but never become sappy. Other familiar faces appear as the film's trio of villains. Tom Felton is entertainingly broad as the cruel zookeeper who tortures Caesar. Brian Cox is fittingly callous as the ape center's owner. David Oyelowo is a bit unbelievable as the crooked business executive that unwittingly makes the ape's rebellion possible.
As far as big budget genre films go, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is pretty low-key. The first hour is almost entirely character based, save for a somewhat extended sequence of Bright Eyes attempting to escape the research compound. There's very little action until the last third, when Caesar escapes and engineers his primate insurrection. The apes seize the bars of their cages, using them as spears, piercing police cars. The film's climax is a spectacular finale on the Golden Gate Bridge. There's plenty of car crashes, eventually leading to an impressive scene where the apes are shot at with a machine gun. Probably the coolest moment involves a gorilla leaping into a flying helicopter, bringing the vehicle down with his brute strength. It's not the biggest summer tent pole action scene I've seen but is thrilling precisely because you care about the characters so much.
Bright Eyes, just like Charlton Heston was on the original “Planet.” A half-completed jigsaw puzzle of the Statue of Liberty puts in a brief appearance. Two of Heston's most notorious lines are quoted, in amusingly hammy ways. The film also looks toward the future, setting up a sequel with a human-hating ape partner of Caesar and a homosapien devastating virus sweeping the globe during the credits. It speaks to the reboot's overall quality that these callbacks and set-ups are neither too cute nor distracting. The film is a very clever reinvention of the series, bolstered by sturdy writing and direction. Yet its greatest success in rooted in its stunning central performance. [8/10]
Friday, July 28, 2017
without a finished screenplay. Director J. Lee Thompson, returning from “Conquest,” was displeased with what script they had. Maybe the Fox executives were aware of this. By the time “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” hit theater screens, someone had clearly decided that these monkey movies had run their course. The film was sold as the final chapter in the series. At least for now.
In the years since “Conquest's” theatrical ending, a nuclear war has leveled the western world. The cities have been reduced to rumble. Only irradiated subhuman mutants live in the ruins. Caesar has built a society in the country, where humans and apes live in an unsteady peace. Factors within Ape City attempt to undermine Caesar's accomplishments. Aldo, a power-hungry gorilla, hates humans and dreams of overthrowing Caesar. In hopes of finding information about his parents, Caesar enters the mutant's city, provoking their violence. Aldo uses this conflict as a chance to seize power.
The film's two central conflicts aren't especially compelling either. Aldo is a weak villain. His hatred for humans is vaguely defined. His earlier depiction as blatantly unintelligent doesn't pair well with his treacherous ambitions. The mutants' motivations are also poorly planned. They aren't interested in attacking apes until Caesar randomly shows up in their neighborhood. The film tries to give the mutant's attack some meaning but it doesn't wash. Ultimately, the film uses both story threads to wimp out. Caesar beats the mutants back but doesn't kill any of them, doesn't take prisoners, and allows them to leave. In other words, he sticks to his moral high ground. However, Aldo and his apes then show up to kill the mutants. So the bad guys get punished but the hero is freed of any consequences. Lame.
this being his third film role. He plays Virgil, the town genius who is amusing despite his smarty-pants antics.
Maybe the producers were aware that “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” felt a little thrown together. In hopes of granting the film a mythic quality, a framing device is added. Far in the future, an orangutan Lawgiver tells a mixed audience of humans and apes the film's story. Getting John Huston for this part, his reverberating voice making the narration seem more important, was a good idea. The film concludes on an ambiguous note. After the Lawgiver finishes his story, the camera zooms in on a statue of Caesar. The statue weeps. Which is super cheesy but interesting. Does Caesar's statue cry out of joy, that humans and apes eventually find peace? Or out of sadness, because that peace is ultimately impossible? It's an interesting note to take things out on, at the very least.
A television show, also starring Roddy McDowell, would air the next year. An animated series would follow the year after that. Both would only run for one season. Despite these setbacks, the “Planet of the Apes” series' place in sci-fi – and cinematic – history is secure. These older films might be slightly cheesy by modern standards but they continue to entertain and provoke thought even today. [6/10]