Classic Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.

Fair warning:  Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics.  Be advised.

Review:  Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature.  Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy.  ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion.  ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general.  We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut.  We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.

Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect.  The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship.  This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment.  The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment.  Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation.  The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique.  Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out.  The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships.  For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies.  The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event.  The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode.  In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal.  To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart.  Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!

Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns.  This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it.  It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles.  For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.

Black Swan

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  A finely-crafted noirish psychological thriller, abounding with insights into sex, identity, and art, but occasionally overindulgent.

Review:  Imagination is the life of the soul.  It enables us to evolve beyond our boundaries.  As a million and two film thrillers will tell you, it can also be incredibly dangerous.  Enter Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a fascinating neo-noir movie about ballet that I’d dare call the female counterpart to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.  Similarities abound; the relationship between physical and spiritual maturity, the destructive side of sex (both gender identity and intercourse), struggles against imposed ideals, psychological separation, paranoia — probably more.  They’re both disturbing experiences, though for reasons of demographics I found ‘Fight Club’ the more resonant film.

There are important divergences, however.  ‘Black Swan’ is about art and sacrifice and not popular culture and violence, for one.  Stylistically, Aronofsky’s film is claustrophobic and documentary where Fincher’s is large and hyper-real.  ‘Black Swan’ is more intimate, personal, and terrifying in the inescapable moment rather than by implication.

This brings me back to imagination.  Nina (Natalie Portman in her best role yet) is a soul struggling for perfection in the world of ballet, and she hopes to fill the lead role of her director’s new version of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Swan Lake’.  This version, however, will need her to fulfill the role of the White Swan — innocent, virginal, controlled, much like herself — and the Black Swan — dangerous, sensual, passionate — and the director doubts she has it in her.  The film plays as an adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ as Nina transforms into the Black Swan, first in her life and then on the stage.  This metamorphosis is a deadly combination of her repressed womanhood and the Black Swan character, her imaginative dreams invading her constrictive waking life.

Many psychological thrillers spring from the idea of personifying unwanted feelings, memories, and behaviors, separating the lead character from their internal torment and therefore dramatizing the conflict in a very visual way.  For the cinematically savvy, this can become predictable, taking the punch out of it.  Where ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Fight Club’ succeed is in diverting our interest from surprise revelations about identity and conscience to broader external conflicts.  ‘Black Swan’s source of tension, the upcoming, life-defining performance of ‘Swan Lake’, is a simple and powerful one.  It grips us like a vice, and everything else adds pressure.

Like a classic film noir, ‘Black Swan’ has strong sexual themes, in particular seduction, jealousy, and control.  Aronofsky dives into explicit territory, but what makes it work is the nagging question of how much is happening in Nina’s mind and how much is real.  Because of the subjective cinematography, we’ve reason to doubt either explanation.  I found this conflict’s resolution incredibly cathartic; by embracing her Black Swan persona, Nina gains control over her sexual identity and becomes assertive, granting her equilibrium and freedom from her mother’s implied abuse.

The film also has a strong horror backbone.  It plays similar to ‘District 9’ in Nina’s queasy, gradual transformation, which may or may not be real.  A quill here, a bleeding fingernail there.  And, of course, the doppelganger stalking her in subways and mirrors.  This is a film about self-image, which can be the worst enemy of self — or a powerful boon.

‘Black Swan’ is packed with great performances, cinematography, music, and ideas, but it certainly isn’t a film for everyone.  I wouldn’t call it the best picture of the year, either.  In some places it overplays its hand.  Nevertheless, it’s another reason to believe that cinema as an art will continue to survive, and even flourish, no matter how imperfect it is.

Classic Review: F For Fake

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An excellent film — a sort of metadocumentary — that exposes its own artifice and the relationship between truth and trust.

Review:  In the 1973 film ‘F For Fake’, over 88 minutes cinematic genius Orson Welles examines the nature of art in a filmic form not quite documentary and not quite fiction.   It’s proof that the peculiar magic of the medium is not restricted to the categories dreamed up by marketing departments.  ‘F For Fake’ is a truly self-aware film.  It doesn’t merely acknowledge its artifice in a humorous, superficial way; it turns itself inside out.  It is edited in such a way as to obfuscate our attempts to sort out truth and fiction.  It’s like a photograph of a flower-pot hiding its very subject immediately behind it.  For us viewers at Mr. Welles’ mercy, the question is, when are we looking at the proverbial flower-pot?

Orson Welles is brazen and beguiling as he guides us through the twisted tale of an infamous art forger and his equally infamous biographer.  Throughout the story, he weaves in a bizarre fiction and chases rabbits down their trails.  Mr. Welles promises to tell us the truth whilst declaiming himself as a charlatan akin to his subjects.  Welles in his own estimation is untrustworthy, but we believe him anyway, and that is precisely his point!

While he’s at it, he subtly explores sexuality’s use as a deceptive device, through two sequences in which a beautiful woman distracts us from the ideas at play.  He seems to suggest that physical beauty is often used by filmmakers to divert our attention from both flaws and substantive content.  That’s consistent with how often sex appeal determines casting, particularly in works of a shallower nature.  It wouldn’t be enough to say that this is just good business.  Even if it has become second nature, these techniques are a kind of sleight-of-hand.  The plot could disappear into a deep hole, but your basic instincts might not let you notice.  And, for a storyteller more intent on complexity, using human desires to his or her advantage is a simple and effective way to get an audience’s attention while they work past the mind’s more intricate defenses.

In a film-craft sense, ‘F For Fake’ is really brilliant, with rapid cuts, repetitions, and instantly evocative imagery creating a captivating kaleidoscope.  For those of us in the post-MTV world who have to endure and sometimes enjoy the films of Michael Bay and others like him, it’s positively redeeming to see prototypes of postmodern techniques used so meaningfully.  Paired and contrasted with the classic techniques of ‘Citizen Kane’, it’s perhaps the ultimate example of Orson Welles’ range and influence.

‘F For Fake’ revolves around a simple premise: What we believe is true relies on who we believe is trustworthy.  It is a reminder that those we call experts — such as the art dealers defrauded by Elmyr de Hory — also rely on other people for estimates of the truth.  Considering that a painting mimicking an original may trick even the finest eye, what then is an original’s value?  Isn’t it possible to derive the same pleasure from an original and a fake?  If a duped museum believes that a clever fake is the genuine article, and displays it under this pretense, would the viewers in effect be seeing an original, or even the original by proxy?

The film challenges the notion that art’s virtue is in the truth of itself.  Art, genuine or forgery, is properly measured by how well it convinces us.  Aristotle observed, in reference to theatrical art, that (and the emphasis is mine) “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.”  In short, it’s a noble deception by which we hope to accomplish an emotional change in those who, for at least a little time, choose to believe it.  As in the case of a painting, a film’s communicated truth is in its emotional effect on the viewer.

One hopes that a filmmaker is responsible and doesn’t betray our confidence by convincing us of ignoble things; but what is there to stop them?  My hope as a filmmaker and a critic is to be an honest charlatan.  I’d like to echo Mr. Welles, who in this magic act says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Slumdog Millionaire

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Gripping, intimate, and ultimately hopeful, 2008’s Best Picture deserves its recognition.

D. Thats my final answer.

D. That's my final answer.

Review:  Yesterday evening, I went to go see the critically acclaimed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which has enjoyed great success in the past few weeks.  It’s made the rare move up the box office top ten, rather than degrading.  I had wanted to see it awhile back, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

I saw it the night it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

I have had a distaste for the Academy’s decisions in recent history, snubbing great movies that deserved at least a nod (like, say, ‘Gran Torino’ or ‘The Dark Knight’), but I do agree that, out of the nominees, ‘Slumdog’ deserves the prize.  Granted, I only saw two out of the five hopefuls, but the only other Best Picture nominee that I wanted to see was ‘Frost/Nixon’.  For myself then, its only competition was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which, ironically enough, is something of an antithesis of ‘Slumdog’.  ‘Benjamin Button’ is about death.  ‘Slumdog’ is about life.

Something else that struck me as particularly different was how conservative ‘Slumdog’ was, as contrasted with most modern cinema.  ‘Slumdog’, since it was shot in India, had to play by their rules to get past the censors.  Unlike Europe and the United States, India is a country that has not alienated its religious side.  As such, something approximating the U.S.’s Hays Code still exists.  The sexual aspects of the story, then, are told and shown in a way that does not titillate, but invites sympathy.  There is about one-and-a-half kiss(es) shown on screen, and the way it is played makes this act seem all the more intimate.  The conservative guidelines play right into the filmmakers’ hands.

Though the sexuality is, thankfully, subdued, the violence can still be disturbing.  Yet it is never gratuitous.  What makes the film earn its R rating is the tone, not the acts themselves.  I’ve seen worse in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but that film has a lighter tone than ‘Slumdog’.

As I said, the film was shot on location in India.  Entirely.  The landscape is naturally exotic, and the cinematography dynamically captures this feel.  We are immersed in the culture from the get go.  When we are on the streets, running with the slum children, we feel the energy of the chase, but when we are in a plain hotel room, we feel the staleness and restlessness through the camera.  I don’t think I can imagine a film about India again without thinking of the way this one was shot.  While I’m a bit old school in my preference of a steady, unblinking camera, the fast editing worked perfectly here.

The cast, nearly entirely unknown locals, was incredible.  I believed.  The bad guys were convincingly menacing (one reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, in a good way), the good guys honestly innocent, and the in-betweens reasonably conflicted.  It all played very nice.

This film won Best Score, as well.  That’s one of the few points I’ve got to disagree with the Academy about this film… I don’t think it deserved it.  The score is good, and works very well in the context of the film, but Thomas Newman’s score for ‘Wall-E’ was better.  So was the collaboration for ‘The Dark Knight’, my personal favorite score from last year, but it wasn’t nominated.  But I digress. What I will say about the sound editing is more favorable.  It’s got to be the best sound editing I’ve ever heard, barely topping ‘Wall-E’, which still has better sound design, an important distinction to make.

I’ve given this film a lot of glowing praise, and I think it deserves it.  I can’t say this was my favorite film of this past year.  I can’t say that I have a favorite anymore, actually, but it is definitely up there among the best I’ve seen.

What makes me the happiest about this movie is its undying optimism.  Some may accuse it of being unrealistic, but this is ironic to say in a culture that credits random chance with the creation of life.  I’d say chance and the odds are given too much power.  Some things, as ‘Slumdog’ says, are written.  I believe God looks out for the everyday man.  He gives grace to the humble, no matter who they are.  ‘Slumdog’ doesn’t clearly choose a religious stance, but it does point in the direction of a positive force or intelligence in charge of the universe.  It’s easy to say this is good for fairy tales, but if it isn’t true, what hope have we?  If there is no God, how can a “slumdog”, a poor kid with nothing but a street education, become a millionaire?  Or are we doomed to decay, to die without memory and without hope?  I’d rather believe there is a chance for a happy ending.