Tag: stanley kubrick

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) leads a group of friends (Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn), the four of them collectively known as “droogs,” to commit sociopathic acts of random ultra-violence. Based on the screenplay and directed by Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” wastes no time to lay out its platform. The second scene showcases a beating of an old homeless man, the next involves another five men undressing and attempting to rape a girl, followed by the droogs breaking into a writer’s home to rape his wife. Right away there is an understanding that it is not going to be a movie for everyone—but it does not mean that its message is not important or universal.

It works as a satire due to the material’s proclivity for exaggeration. For instance, aside from McDowell, the majority of the performances are rather robotic and archetypal. People of authority are played to the extremes, especially the police. Scientists are portrayed as cold and unblinking—the ends justified by the means. “Normal” civilians, like Alex’ parents, are dull, some might say idiotic. “Abnormal” civilians, like Alex, his fellow droogs, and other males his age who like to cause trouble, are extremely violent, unpredictable, like starving dogs chained to a post clamoring for the same slab of fresh meat placed only a few feet away. Because the performances are hyperbolic, even though the supporting characters are not fleshed out, they work because each one is magnetic.

There are certain roles where a specific actor is born to play a part. McDowell is Alexander DeLarge, prisoner 655321, and he plays the lead droog with animalistic energy both ferocious and playful that he is ingrained in film culture. In every scene, he hits the perfect spot, exuding a specific level of danger with a hint of humor. There is not one scene when we feel like Alex is playing one emotion or thinking about one thing. Because of such a portrayal, he is an enigma through and through.

The picture comes into focus the moment the main character brings up a form of treatment that can potentially get him out of prison in no time. With no intention to exorcise his thirst for sex and violence, he volunteers to participate in a so-called Ludovico Technique, currently in its experimental stage, which, in theory, can “make a man good.” The goal of the study is to eliminate the “criminal reflex” and the methods employed is not at all dissimilar to aversion therapy. The big question is this: Given that the tools are available and the methods work in the most elementary sense, is it morally right to change one’s nature just so a person can fit the mold of society?

The circus of violence in the first arc is justified not for the sake of experience but for the sake of argument. We need to see what Alex’ lifestyle, how he thinks, what he is capable of. We need to see him destroy lives, to scare them in some way. So when the big question is placed onto our laps, it is not so easy to provide a simple answer. We acknowledge that Alex is a convicted felon and what he has done is wrong, but the underlying motivations of the therapy should also be taken into consideration.

Based on a novella by Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange” shows us a monstrous society, not limited to the behavior of the droogs, by executing and shooting it through beautiful aesthetics. This is only one of the many contradictions in the film. Another aspect worth mentioning is its utilization of classical music to underline chaos. Kubrick creates a synergy between music and imagery so confidently that the experience is like undergoing hypnosis.

Room 237

Room 237 (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Room 237,” directed by Rodney Ascher, is a documentary that commands immediate appeal, at least for me, because “The Shining” is one of the movies I revisit just about every year. There is something about Kubrick’s film that demands to seen, to be experienced again and again, from the sinister space the director creates—both in terms of physicality, the interiors of the hotel, or headspace, the mental breakdown of Jack Torrance—to stylistic flourishes such as the famous unbroken shot of Danny big wheeling around the hallways of the Overlook Hotel as an increasing sense of dread runs parallel with every turn he takes.

The documentary is not about the horror classic. It is about people who love the film so much and have seen the picture so many times that they began to see patterns and felt compelled to construct themes that may or may not be there in the first place. It is about how these elements snowball into theories—some very wild—and how the theories, through word-of-mouth, have become a part of the collective unconscious of those who admire or find the film enigmatic, a puzzle to be solved.

Various unseen narrators—Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Bill Blakemore, John Fell Ryan, Geoffrey Cocks—present entertaining theories. I enjoyed how one of them pointed out that one can find a detail of impossibility in just about every scene. For example, a television is up and running but it has no cord that is plugged into an electric source. Another shows a room that appears to receive sunlight through a window… but the layout of the hotel suggests that the room is surrounded by other rooms. Now, I had seen Kubrick’s film at least fifteen times. I like to consider myself as an observant person so I was surprised—and tickled—that I never noticed such details.

Perhaps the most far out theory involves the movie being meant to be seen forward and backward. That is, images are superimposed so that the story is told from the beginning (moving forward) as well as from the end (moving backward). Certain frames captured are genuinely creepy—or silly, depending on one’s perspective—like Jack Torrance’s face looking like a clown when superimposed with the shot of two murdered girls in the hallway.

Though we never see the narrators’ faces, their voices are friendly and welcoming. It is important that they do not sound like they are lecturing the audience. After all, even if they have managed to link numerous elements that seem to support their theories, no matter how improbable, not one of them knows—or will ever get a chance to know—Kubrick’s intentions. Instead, it is appropriate that they sound like fans of the movie who are open to discussion even if a person disagrees with their proposed ideas.

Is the movie really about the genocide of Indian-Americans? The Holocaust? Demons being sexually attracted to humans? How Kubrick helped to fake the Apollo moon footage? I don’t know. Nor do I care. What I do know is that if a movie manages to inspire or get people talking for several decades, then the filmmakers have done something right.

The Shining

The Shining (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets an interview at the Overlook Hotel for the open caretaker position. The job starts before the start of winter and lasts till May which is perfect for Jack because he feels isolation is what he needs in order to organize ideas for his upcoming novel. Although the manager of the hotel, Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson), admits that being a caretaker is not physically demanding, from running the boiler to turning on the heater in select areas of the building, it can be quite a challenge psychologically. Mr. Ullman confirms that in the winter of 1970, the seclusion has gotten so bad that the caretaker at the time murdered his wife and two daughters with an ax. Jack laughs with assurance, claiming that nothing like that will happen during his watch.

Directed with great eye and execution by Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” has made a permanent imprint on my subconscious and imagination that just about every year, I find myself dreaming about it. It is foreboding and beautiful from the moment it begins with an aerial view of Jack’s car running toward the hotel, accompanied by hair-raising gothic horror music, until the final shot showing a curious picture from July 4, 1921.

The picture starts to gain momentum when Jack and his family are given a tour of the hotel. The lobby is gorgeous, boasting framed photos of important visitors as well as American-Indian designs on carpets and wall tapestries, the kitchen is enormous with numerous metallic utensils and equipment, the freezer is meat galore, and the storage room is teeming with sweet goodies. But the Overlook Hotel’s beauty is clearly meant to attract visitors from all over the world. And just like all places, it has a history. This one happens to sit on an Indian burial ground and Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack’s young son, can feel that this place, despite its beauty, offers something rotten and awful.

Particularly memorable is a critical scene between Danny and the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), because it showcases the director’s characteristic laser focus on what needs to be delivered and how to go about it. Although the conversation is constantly evolving, from Danny’s imaginary friend named Tony to what might be hiding in room 237, its crux is what having the “shine” means.

The casting of Crothers is genius because he commands a voice that oozes wisdom seemingly without effort, the kind of voice that children would be attuned to listen to and really hear what needs to be said. We are the children in this story not only because of the mystery and hidden horrors it offers but also in terms of the hotel’s space and structure. Kubrick places us into this specific place and we are in the middle of it, marveling at its enormity.

Shelley Duvall, playing Jack’s terrified wife, gets unfair criticism for being too dramatic that she becomes ineffective in the role. I am often at a loss when such a critique comes up because I cannot imagine anyone else playing Wendy Torrance. I believed Duvall as a character who is fragile, weak, and easily bullied by her husband. Scenes where Wendy is required to go toe-to-toe against her increasingly erratic—and psychotic—husband offer wonderful entertainment. There is humor, horror, and grandiosity in both performances. Without Duvall’s constant hyperventilation, while looking incredibly pale as if she were in a permanent state of shock, Nicholson’s performance would not have had an effective sounding board. Take away one and the other loses resonance.

“The Shining” offers an ascending sentiment of dread—one scene literally taking place on a staircase as Jack announces that he plans to bash his wife’s head in. To discuss its technical brilliance, especially with its utilization of the Steadicam during the hallway sequences, is beyond the scope of this review.

But I will a point of saying this: The picture is the antithesis of so-called mind-boggling movies that “require” to be seen several times for audiences to fully understand and appreciate its mysteries. It can be seen only once and although it will leave the viewer with questions, the viewer is likely to be satisfied. In my case, however, I make sure to revisit the picture annually to relish the consummate filmmaking.

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After the death of a patient, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks around New York City and enters a jazz club where one of his former classmates, who dropped out of medical school, is supposed to play the piano. Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) tells Bill that he has another gig later that night—one that is particularly strange because he is required to play blindfolded. In addition, the event’s location is held at a different place every time and he is told only an hour prior where it will take place. Piqued with curiosity, Bill insists that he goes with Nick to the party but, clearly, it is not open to guests. One needs to provide the password at the gate and the attendee to be costumed and masked.

“Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s final work, is a film that functions on several planes. On one hand, it works as an exploration of marriage and the roles spouses play in order to stay married. On the other, it is a descent into a nightmarish dreamworld which involves a thriving secret society that is willing to do whatever it takes to keep its business hidden. It is a beautiful-looking film from top to bottom, but the aesthetic enhances the experience of us getting to know Bill as a husband and as a man, which at times are mutually exclusive spheres.

What it is not is a simplistic skin flick meant to titillate but offering little substance. The dialogue is rich with passion, guilt, and frustration—particularly memorable is the scene where Bill’s wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), confesses to her partner of nine years that just a summer ago, she contemplated of having an affair with a young Naval officer. The scene is one that constantly evolves. It begins with a level of sensuality. As the argument heats up, amusing elements are introduced and we are left to wonder whether the space between the lovers will dissolve or grow. It is exciting that it is entirely possible to go either way. Finally, the scene ends with a catharsis and sadness, followed by a phone call that brings terrible news.

Cruise and Kidman’s performances are colorful and engaging. Kidman is particularly entertaining in playing a character who is under the influence, whether it be of one too many alcoholic beverages or marijuana. Though Kidman’s screen time is about a third of her co-star, she hits the nail on the head in every one of them. Notice the way she plays Alice, who is a little bit drunk at a Christmas party, when a man named Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) expresses his interest to take her upstairs to, supposedly, show her some art. What could have been a tacky scene turns into an elegant power play. Admittedly, I wanted to see her commit an act of infidelity. I suspected that she also wanted to but her senses are not yet numb to the ring on her finger.

On the other side of the spectrum, Cruise plays Bill almost stoic most of the time but he is never boring. His curiosity tends to lead to one close call after another, whether it be of getting caught by his wife as he considers being physically intimate with another woman or being physically hurt by members of a secret society after they discover his trespasses. As the picture goes on, we are all the more convinced that he is out of his depth. There is suspense when his hundred dollar bills and the title in front of his name are no longer able to save him from what must happen.

Some argue that the set is never a convincing stand-in for New York City. They miss the point completely. I believe the exterior shots are not meant to look real, just as outer appearances of the characters do not accurately provide a real representation of themselves. The interior shots, on the other hand, are entirely different. These are very detailed—from the paintings on walls, books on shelves, bottles and glasses of wine on tables, to textures of carpets and rugs in every room. We get a sense of how they live, what they like, where their interests lie.

Based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, “Eyes Wide Shut” challenges the mind and the senses. Some may even find it to be a physical trial due to its running time of two and a half hours. But one thing cannot be denied: A dark artistry is at work here and once one has adapted to its rhythm, one will not want to look away.

Under the Skin

Under the Skin (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Some movies are so defiantly opaque that one cannot help but marvel at the brazen display of pretension oozing through the screen. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is that type of picture. There is absolutely an audience for movies like this, but I was not impressed.

Scarlett Johansson signs up to be objectified. The first half involves her character seducing men in Scotland and luring them into a house where, once inside, it is pitch black and the unsuspecting prey is eventually swallowed by a calm liquid. We watch Johansson stripping off her clothes until she is down to her bra and panties, all the while retaining a blank look on her face. The second half is somewhat similar although the performer soon reveals her breasts and crotch. It is all supposed to be “artistic,” I guess.

The screenplay is insistent on not answering any nagging questions and so it fails to connect to the audience beyond sensory level. Why is Johansson’s character, who seems to be an extraterrestrial being, only targeting young white men? Who is “she” exactly and what is her purpose? What are the men used for? Food? Energy? Eventually, we are allowed to observe what happens underneath that mysterious liquid. However, it serves only to showcase visual effects that is not even all that striking.

There are three good scenes surrounded by close to worthless, deathly boring, lifeless expositions. The event that unfolds at a rocky beach, for instance, commands true suspense. The raw image of people being swallowed by increasingly strong and violent waves makes us wonder at which moment we will no longer see a person struggling. Second, the young man with a deformity offers a glimmer of true emotions in an otherwise emotionally static script. Lastly, the final scene in the woods shows how good the movie could have been if the writers, Walter Campbell and Glazer, had allowed us to empathize with the protagonist more often.

It takes great talent to turn style into substance. This is why names like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick hold value to me and the name Glazer does not. In Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while the ending sequence boggles the mind, at that point it requires that we be confused or not know how to respond exactly because the story takes a leap into the unknown. In “The Tree of Life,” the lyricism is welcoming and consistent. Although a sensory experience for the most part, we understand the core of its subjects.

“Under the Skin” is an art-house film with a small brain and even smaller ambitions. If Glazer’s intention were to create a picture for the sake of it existing, then congratulations. But let us not pretend that this is anything remotely original or, worse, attempting to set the standard for anything. It will not be remembered fondly twenty or thirty years from now. This I guarantee.


Gravity (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During a space shuttle mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an astronaut, receive an order from Mission Control: abort the task because space debris triggered by a Russian missile strike is on its way. The warning proves too late—significant portions of the space shuttle are suddenly in pieces and the pair come flying about in separate directions without a tether to keep them within distance of their assigned worked area. Since it is Dr. Stone’s first mission, she panics and we observe Newton’s first law of motion in terrifying action.

“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an exhausting experience in the best way possible. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the picture shows that one does not need a bulky running time to appear significant and fulfilling. It values our time, chooses to go straight to the point, and it gets the job done. The first scene sets the pace and the director is keenly aware of this. As a result, the first ten minutes is highly accomplished, allowing us to marvel at the sight of Earth and then thrusting us into horror as the shuttle—without sound—breaks like glass. It is a sight to behold.

The story could have just been about two people in spacesuits as they attempt to survive in the blackness of space. I had my doubts. What is so interesting about someone floating about and breathing heavily? Instead, the screenplay by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón plays with the audience. The medical engineer and the cosmonaut are written smart. General plans are drawn but plenty of unexpected errors and chance happenings occur. So many turns unravel that we learn to expect the unexpected. That does not necessarily mean we are ready for them. I like it best when movies are consistently one step ahead, those that demand to look us in the eye and dare us to tangle with it.

It is masterful and elegant in conveying a sense of danger. The way the camera glides so calmly as characters attempt to grab a hold of something—anything—to avoid getting sucked into a vacuum with little to no hope of rescue jolts us into leaning closer at the screen while simultaneously flinching at the possible worst case scenario. The juxtaposition between images captured and execution are melded just right.

Half of the casting works. Choosing Bullock to play a medical engineer whose first time in space quickly escalates into an unimaginable tragedy is unexpected because I am used to seeing her in comedies and comedy-dramas. Here, she shows a more serious and somber dimension to her talent. My favorite scene involves Dr. Stone howling and barking like a dog. A lesser performer who does not completely understand the character might have refused to perform the scene. After all, it probably looks stupid on paper or it might look plain silly on screen. I loved that Bullock did it and committed to it completely. To me, it is the character’s defining moment—forget the sad revelation about her past, how much she values her solitude, and how no one is waiting for her at home. Give us an alternative to convey a character’s mindset—something fresh we can chew on.

The casting that works less effectively is Clooney. While understandable that his character is supposed to be a very charming guy, one who has experienced life and always has stories to tell, I was never lost in Kowalski or felt connected to him. Instead, I saw and was constantly reminded of Clooney the big movie star. Perhaps it might have worked better if, like Bullock to Dr. Stone, Kowalski is played by someone who is either playing against-type or someone we do not recognize.

“Gravity” is cited by some alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are two completely different movies. Both are ambitious visually. Both are willing to engage. The former is a story about survival. It takes place within the Earth’s circumference. Though some may disagree, I think it is meant purely to entertain—and there is nothing wrong with that. The latter is a story about not only our relationship with technology but also the limitations of what we can comprehend as a species. It takes place en route to Jupiter and beyond. It inspires us to ruminate.

Despite their differences, the two, in some ways, are spiritually connected.

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since their boss was on vacation in Barbados, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) thought it would be a great idea to capture a concrete paranormal activity, via audio and video recordings, in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, its last weekend being open for business due to a lack of customers. The place had a reputation of being haunted by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who committed suicide after her fiancé stood her up on their wedding day. The inn had only three guests: a woman (Alison Bartlett) with her son (Jake Ryan) in tow because she had a fight with her husband and an actress, Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who was supposed to attend a convention. During Claire’s graveyard shift, she might just get her wish of encountering a ghost as she started to hear sounds of someone playing the piano on the first floor. What I found most curious about “The Innkeepers,” written and directed by Ti West, was its willingness to spend time with its characters instead of focusing on delivering one scare after another. Because their job was not much of a challenge, Luke and Claire played practical jokes on one another and eventually we began to question whether their friendship was strictly professional. Both the flirtation and the old-fashioned inn had its charms to the point where I started to think it may not be too bad actually working there. Claire and Luke seemed to be fun people to hang out with, mainly in that they were able to deliver and endure pranks, and the place reminded me of an infant version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” By focusing on the minutiae of the job: delivering towels, escorting a guest to his room, taking out the trash, our subconscious were able to create a mental map of the haunted inn. Inevitably, when the characters started to run away after encountering something rather unexplainable, we had an idea of where they may be running toward. The picture was so detail-oriented that we were even given a chance to explore, even for just a bit, Luke’s website, an archive of paranormal happenings in the Yankee Pedlar. The website, too, had its charm, resembling a now-extinct Expage template that reminded me of my former Lizzie McGuire website, tacky icons and all. The scares were scant but most were executed effectively. I enjoyed that they had variation. Sometimes we were able to see a ghost in the background. At times, though, it was front and center. But then there were other times when only the characters saw something. For instance, in one of the most effectively drawn-out scenes, Luke faced Claire as they sat in the basement and summoned Madeline. Claire began to look increasingly terrified and Luke asked, even though he might have had an idea, what was wrong. We were left to wonder whether it was just another prank or if there really was something behind Luke. However, the ending could have used some work not necessarily in terms of content, though it could have been much stronger, but pacing. It felt too rushed, Horror 101, which did not match the elegance and organic feel of the rest of the picture. Nevertheless, “The Innkeepers” was a nice treat because it treated us like we didn’t have ADD. It’s a fine example that subtlety mixed with charm goes a long way.