music friday: the turtles, “elenore”
the chicago code, series premiere

what i watched last week

The Fighter. Leaving the theater, I felt good about this movie. Of course, it’s hard to fuck up the end of a boxing movie … just show the final fight, get the audience stoked, and pull off a happy ending, however that might be defined (the hero doesn’t necessarily need to win, as fans of Rocky know). Boxer wins or loses, but does so with honor, and everyone comes together and hugs it out. And so I was feeling good. And naturally, we were talking about the Oscar-nominated performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, not to mention Amy Adams in a less showy role. But then I started thinking about what I’d seen. Of course Bale and Leo got Oscar noms … they are respected actors playing attention-getting, over-the-top roles. Adams, who is just fine, is nonetheless playing a different kind of character than we are used to from her, another way to ensure a nomination. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg holds the entire film together, but he isn’t chewing the scenery, so he’s the one actor of the four who doesn’t get a nomination. Well, for my money, he’s the real acting star of the movie. Meanwhile, the strong portrait of a dysfunctional family gets sold out for the above-mentioned happy ending. It’s still a good movie, but it could have been better. Nominated for 7 Oscars, and #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the most acclaimed movies of the 21st century. 7/10.

In the Realm of the Senses. Nagisa Ôshima plows right through questions of pornography and redeeming value; yes, it’s pornographic and yes, it has redeeming value, and no, it doesn’t really matter. Well, it might have mattered to Ôshima, who was purposely pushing Japanese buttons with all the hardcore sex. But watching the film isn’t much like watching straight porn, in large part because, despite the hardcore sex, Ôshima does little to turn on his audience. It’s a character study, with one of the characters being Japan, so I suppose maybe it’s not really porn, after all. Eiko Matsuda is fascinating as the Japanese anti-heroine, Sada Abe (like The Fighter, this film is based on a true story), but to be honest, I found the progressive obsessions to be less interesting than they were meant to be. You knew pretty early on how the movie would go … the man and woman would get sucked into an obsessive sexual relationship, the sex would get more bizarre to match the increase in the obsessions, and it wouldn’t end well. The only mystery was what new kinkiness they’d come up with (my “favorite” would have to be the egg-in-the-vagina trick). An important film, but not a great one. #262 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Red. Standard shoot-‘em-up, only this time with old people doing most of the shooting. Seems like this plot comes around every few years … think of Original Gangstas back in ‘96, which had Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, Ron “Superfly” O’Neal and others playing old timers kicking ass. Here, it’s Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine, and Helen Mirren (the latter is admittedly a clever piece of casting). There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, other than the sight of Mirren blowing people away while wearing a nice white outfit. Freeman is doubly-cursed: he’s got incurable cancer, and he’s black, so you know he’ll have to die heroically. Mary-Louise Parker is fun. The movie is PG-13 rather than R because while lots of people get shot up, Parker and Mirren keep their tops on. 6/10.

A Woman Under the Influence. John Cassavetes has been called self-indulgent, but I might shorten that to simply indulgent. He indulges his actors, allows them to find their roles, clearly believing that there is truth in acting. In this film, Gena Rowlands gives the Cassavetes performance to top them all. She gives offers raw emotions, she lets her inner turmoil escape into an astonishing blend of facial and body movements. It’s no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar. Is she good? Never … at times she’s brilliant, at other times she’s awful, but she’s never something so mundane as good. Rowlands’ character is schizophrenic, but we are meant not only to sympathize with her but to accept her skewed perspective as “normal.” But what really matters is that the schizophrenia gives Rowlands a chance to show her acting chops. They are impressive, and she is often moving, but the film is a bit of a mess. #149 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list, and while I don’t agree with that high ranking, I understand it. 7/10.

Eyes Wide Shut. Where to begin? I could quote Charles Taylor, who wrote, “from "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) on, the dominant mood of every Kubrick film was that of cold technical proficiency.” Kubrick’s career resembles that of Rod Stewart, who made some of the greatest albums of all time and then wasted his talent for several subsequent decades. By 1964, Kubrick had made three films for which I give a 10/10 rating. In the last 35 years of his life, he never made a movie I rated higher than 6/10. Eyes Wide Shut, based on a novella, runs for more than 2 1/2 hours (thank god it wasn’t based on a full-length novel … I’d still be watching the damn thing). The pace is glacial, and while the film’s champions like to snark at modern audiences who can’t sit still for anything slower than Run Lola Run, that glacial pace works to the detriment of this movie. Nicole Kidman, in particular, seems to have been directed to take as … long … as … possible … to say her lines, making that fine actress seem like a hack. People take forever to do or say anything. It’s not thoughtful, it’s not artistic, it’s lazily compulsive. As for the famous orgy sequence, it cries out for a Mad Magazine parody (or maybe it is its own parody). Leave it to Kubrick to make a boring orgy. The most sensual material in the movie consists of loving shots of Kidman’s ass, a beautiful sight to be sure, but maybe Kubrick could have spent a little less time on her ass and a little more time actually directing her performance. The epitome of sexuality for Kubrick, based on the evidence in Eyes Wide Shut, is best represented by the character of Mandy. Eva Herzigova was meant to play the role, but she objected to the many nude scenes. Normally, I’d say whatever … I’m all in favor of nude scenes, myself … but Herzigova knew what she was talking about. Mandy’s two big scenes consist of a long segment where she is stretched out fully naked, almost dead from an overdose, and a second scene where she is dead on a slab and we get to check out her hooters for an extended period. That’s Kubrick’s idea of sex: a dead woman, overdosed on dope. #672 on the TSPDT site. 4/10.

Comments

scott

Okay, well your demolition of Kubrick (actually, it's not that unreasonable, all things considered) deserves at least a half-hearted rebuttal from someone who's clearly a bigger fan than you. I'm with you on the greatness of the early movies, esp. Lolita. Briefly on the rest:

- 2001 is one of my 25 favourite movies of all-time. I attribute this at least in part to the fact that my brother took me to the theatre to see it when I was still in my early teens; that's a hard experience to shake off regardless, but I've enjoyed it a little bit more with every subsequent viewing

- Clockwork Orange - Definitely a dud, though it's been years since I've seen it (it's one very specific example of where Kael's review didn't so much persuade me on the movie as make perfectly clear what my own objections to it were... it's rather sadistic, and not much fun).

- Still haven't seen Barry Lyndon.

- The Shining is fantastic -- one of his very best, and one of my favourite '80s movies (though it's something I feel I need to see again -- I've actually only seen it once all the way through)

- Full Metal Jacket is good (only seen it once) though might be the least immediately impressionable of his movies, at least for me - good, but not really a standout in its genre

- A.I. - unlike a lot of people, I do consider this half his film and I totally love it (though sure, the last 15 minutes is a misstep, though still a misstep I don't mind sitting through) - I've read in lots of places how it's really ultimately Spielberg's movie, and technically I'm sure this is correct, but I still think the thing is infused with Kubrick, even if his presence is merely spectral or philosophical or something (I just don't think Spielberg on his own would've made exactly this movie)

- Eyes Wide Shut -- Extremely flawed, takes itself far too seriously, etc. Pretty much with you on the orgy scenes, which are a little harder to watch every time (for their ponderousness, though I've gone both ways with that piano music which is ponderousness in minimal-repetition mode). You're very persuasive on Nicole Kidman, who I agree brings very little to the movie. However, I think you're ignoring the one thing that does make the movie watchable, which is Tom Cruise. He's anything like my favourite actor, and most of the time I can take him or leave him. But I really think he brings something special to the part here -- the best stuff in the movie is him dealing with himself after his big night out; his paranoia is just so intensely focused, I found him pretty riveting to be honest.

scott

I mean to say, "He's anything BUT my favourite actor..."

scott

Also, I don't get the Rod Stewart comparison, really. I mean, it's intriguing and I'm glad you brought it up, but even if I were to accept your premise of genius-to-dud (which I don't for either guy, really, though I get where you're coming from in both cases), I just think their methodologies, modus-operandi(s), whatever you want to call it, are worlds apart. Stewart may have sucked for the most part after the mid-70s, but he never sunk into ponderousness or "cold technical proficiency," I don't think -- he just flailed about for a few decades, sounding like he didn't give much of a damn is how I tend to hear it (if Kubrick was Stewart, he'd have made Porky's II rather than The Shining). I think a better comparison, believe it or not, might be Michael Jackson. Post-Thriller his career is uneven, to say the least (he tapped into his greatness now and then), with occasional forays into out-and-out awfulness -- stop-vilifying-me nonsense that's actually hard to listen to and which as a member of the audience you get the feeling you're supposed to marvel over and applaud the mere act of its creation. Don't know if I'd say Jackson's stuff was particularly ponderous -- and again, he undercut his worst pretentions often enough, and sometimes even made them work for him, i.e., on the Dangerous album -- but there was definitely a self-seriousness to everything in his repertoire after 1983.

I'm not really sure the Jackson comparison works, either, truth be told. I'm going to be thinking about this all day now probably.

Steven Rubio

Sorry about that Rod Stewart thing ... it was mostly off-the-cuff, I was trying to think of someone whose later work was very disappointing in the context of what came before, and Rod's just my Go To Guy for that.

A.I. is an interesting case, I'd have to think about that one. One the one hand, I think of it as a Spielberg film. On the other hand, while I am a pretty big fan of his movies, I'm not much of a fan of A.I. (Minority Report is the one I love).

I didn't get into it in the main post, but many of my problems with Kubrick's movies are retrospective ... in a lot of cases, I liked the movies quite a bit when they were released. I'm of the generation that spent a lot of time in the theater, watching 2001 for the umpteenth time while stoned out of my gourd. Malcolm McDowell was a charismatic presence in Clockwork. Barry Lyndon worked for me in a languorous kind of way. The Shining was iconic. The first half of Full Metal Jacket was riveting.

I think there are two things that have led me to change my opinions. First, I am far less tolerant now of long movies. If I love a movie, I don't mind if it's four hours long, but it has to be great. Maybe I liked Barry Lyndon when it came out because it was no problem for me to sit for three hours without wishing I could take a leak. You can watch Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove while someone else is watching Barry Lyndon, and you'll leave the theater while their movie is still in its endless conclusion. (Spartacus, on the other hand, is another one I love, even though it, too, is three hours long ... if I love it, I don't notice.) Once you decide Kubrick's movies tend to run on too long, you become hypersensitive to the times when his films move too slowly, and suddenly 2001 and Barry Lyndon and The Shining aren't as good as you once thought.

The other problem, probably the biggest, is that I finally decided I don't like what Kubrick does with actors. McDowell was perfect as Alex, Cruise does what he can in Eyes Wide Shut, there are good performances scattered randomly around Kubrick's movies. But 2001, which is oft-praised because HAL is a more beguilingly human character than the actual people in the movie, starts walking a fine line (I buy the concept, though, so I cut them some slack). Clockwork Orange is where the worst of all this comes through, though ... Patrick Magee chews the scenery, Kubrick does everything he can to crank up Magee's excesses, and I can't watch that movie now without wondering why the director didn't step in and tell Magee to tone it down (obviously, Kubrick didn't want him to). Nicholson in The Shining is the best/worst example ... a great actor with a tendency towards hamminess, and Kubrick seems to encourage Jack's worst side ("Here's Johnny" is emblematic, both an iconic Kubrickian moment and a ridiculous piece of overacting). Only Lee Ermey makes this work ... his drill instructor is properly overbearing. Meanwhile, look at poor Shelley Duvall. Granted, Kubrick wasn't the only director who didn't know what to do with this eccentric talent ... Altman may be the only one who managed to make room for Duvall to be great. But she's not well served by The Shining.

I've gone on too long. I think mostly it just bothers me that at some point, Kubrick became the exemplar of a great director, even though I thought his movies were nowhere near as good as they had been before he'd been canonized.

Finally, the orgy scene. I wanted to laugh out loud when we first see the Crowleyesque shenangians. Kael is the invisible elephant in the room in all of this ... I am far too easily influenced by her, and thus it is surely no coincidence that she rather famously took Kubrick on for all the same movies I complain about. I really wish she had still been working when Eyes Wide Shut came out, because she would have had a few laughs at Kubrick's expense over that orgy. She actually did say something about it in Afterglow ... ludicrous was the word she used, I believe ... whatever, that chanting guy in the middle of the ring of naked babes marks the moment when Kubrick lost me in Eyes Wide Shut.

JPK

Rightly or wrongly, I feel some responsibility for having stirred up this Kubrick hornet's nest, after stopping by a few weeks ago to praise Eyes Wide Shut in passing. Obviously I don't agree with your excoriation, in general or on the details either, but I agree with Scott that it's not hard to see how you get there. Some 10 or 15 years ago I had all but given up on Kubrick myself. Even the ones you have consistently praised no longer worked for me -- Dr. Strangelove corny and obvious, Lolita too pleased with its own knowingness. 2001 struck me as a bore. Spartacus wheezed under the ponderousness. Even A Clockwork Orange, my favorite as an adolescent, just seemed long and unpleasant the last time I looked. This is why I never got to Eyes Wide Shut until recently, and why I was so surprised by how much I liked it. And I think it's Kubrick's direction, particularly in terms of the performances and the pacing, that make it work. The things in this movie that make me cringe, such as Dr. Bill's smug callowness, seem to me intentional and of a piece with what makes it work. The ludicrous spectacle of the orgy also seems to me as intended. I wouldn't think that anything lascivious or "natural" or humorously bawdy would do anything to make the movie work any better, and indeed would positively work against it, as would excising it altogether. It's absolutely integral, and well integrated. I have also gone back recently to 2001 and Barry Lyndon and found both completely impressive against all expectations, so am looking forward myself to getting a look at many of his others again. But sorry if I steered you wrong!

scott

I realize I made two dumb assertions above:
1) saying I agree with Steven about all the early Kubricks. I've only actually seen Lolita and Strangelove. I like them both, though I might be sympathetic to JPK's comment on Strangelove in particular. It's fairly broad satire, I guess, and not something I feel I need to see over and over. Spartacus, like Barry Lyndon, seem unlikely candidates at this point in my life of movies I will ever make the time for. If my daughter was 22 instead of two, maybe... but that's a big chunk of time I don't have for the sorts of dramas I don't normally gravitate towards.
2) calling The Shining one of my favourite '80s movies was also pretty over the top. It did make a strong impression on me, but I'm really terrible at retaining information about movies I've only seen once, so I honestly don't know how strongly I'd feel about it again. As with a lot of Kubrick stuff, I was certainly taken in by the visuals (but to Steven... yeah, the "Heeere's Johnny" part kind of pushes it for me, though I recall loving Nicholson in the earlier part of the film).

Don't apologize for the Rod thing -- I think it's still an interesting idea to mull over: who in music has had a parallel career with Kubrick. "Interesting" of course in that it's unresolvable, ridiculous, and possibly irresistible. (My Michael Jackson comparison isn't really sitting that great with me either.)

Steven Rubio

No need for apologies ... hornet's nest stirring is a good thing!

As for being steered wrong, no need to apologize there, either. Eyes Wide Shut has been on my Netflix queue for a long time. What I watch is driven almost entirely by "mechanical" means. My primary list, the one that informs my Netflix list, is the oft-mentioned They Shoot Pictures, Don't They web site. If they say a movie is #672 of all time, I make an effort to see it. Add the fact that Eyes Wide Shut is available on Blu-ray, and I knew I'd be getting to it sooner rather than later.

Steven Rubio

If I had to make one suggestion relative to all this, it would be to recommend Paths of Glory to anyone who hasn't seen it. Meanwhile, 2001 is on my watch-it-again list ... I have the Blu-ray but haven't cracked it open yet.

Phil Dellio

I can't rationally defend Eyes Wide Shut, but I've seen it two or three times and I like it. The orgy sequence is total Count Floyd territory, yet I amazingly find all the chanting spooky anyway. Nicole Kidman's long monologues are my least favorite parts of the film, and they're what many people count as its only saving grace. I agree with Scott that Cruise is good; Kubrick does the same funny thing with him that Hawks did with Bogart in The Big Sleep, where every woman (and one man, being 1999) he comes in contact with goes all starry-eyed over him. Sydney Pollack's really hammy, and he was so great in Tootsie. My favorite Kubrick films are Paths of Glory and The Killing. My dad's cousin (Nick Dennis) has a speaking part in Spartacus.

Steven Rubio

I thought there was something very meta about the scene where Alan Cumming flirts with Cruise.

steve

Wow, the Kubrick meme struck a nerve. I'm pretty much the opposite of Steven: I didn't get Kubrick at all until Barry Lyndon. I found the scene in which his kid tries unsuccessfully (but utterly sincerely) to kill him to be utterly gut-wrenching, while shot in the usual cold, formal, icily controlled way (and it's ungodly beautiful--Kubrick was using doves way before John Woo). The kid was such a wimp, and he wanted Dad dead in the worst way. Previously, I had fallen asleep on two different occasions watching 2001 (in a movie theater, mind you), and Clockwork Orange was just so much post-countercultural decadence. Once I saw the light, though, the man could do no wrong (although, truth be told, I'm not an utter fan of Eyes Wide Shut), and retroactively, I see that chill over a cauldron of earned emotion all the way back to Killer's Kiss. That is, there's no break in his rhythm that I can see. I love 2001 and Dr. Strangelove now, and Full Metal Jacket is still the most perversively subversive war movie ever made this side of The Steel Helmet.

steve

That said, the man did hate the human race, no doubt about it.

Steven Rubio

Full Metal Jacket also has Vincent D'Onofrio, a brilliant actor then at the beginning of his career, giving one of the few great performances in a Kubrick film.

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