Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten of 2010

What strange trickery is this? A top ten list actually made by the end of the year? Surely this isn’t the same David Holland who took 11 months to post last year’s top ten list. Well hell has been known to freeze over, hey even the Cubs won back to back world series, even if it was 102 years ago. So enough about the pure absurdity of actually seeing enough films to qualify this year, point is I did what comes naturally to so many critics, without nearly the same resources.

This year was an interesting one, but well isn’t every year in it’s own way? A few months into the year I had seen a few films and thought I was in decent shape. In a fairly short amount of time I saw Inception, Toy Story 3, and Mother and thought this year was off an running. Not surprisingly I hit a wall sometime later and before I knew it the “it’s still early” mindset turned into “I better get my ass in gear”. If I told you how many films I’ve watched from this year in the past month I’m sure my picture would appear in Webster’s under the word “obsessed”. Well frantically racing to the finish turned out to be more of a marathon than anything else, and I made it, a few minutes ago to be honest.

Looking at my list from 2009 I was amazed how few foreign language films made the cut. It didn’t seem like I wasn’t watching them, but films like Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, Tulpan, The Headless Woman, and The White Ribbon didn’t seem to impress me as much as everyone else. Don’t misunderstand I didn’t dislike any of these films but when it came to list time they weren’t even under consideration for me. From an early time this year foreign films seemed to be singing a different tune. Bong Joon-ho’s Mother got the ball rolling quite nice. By the time it had come out in theaters here in Chicago the DVD/Blu-Ray was about to be released and mercifully my library got it instantly. After becoming a fan with his previous Memories of Murder and The Host, this was a most looked forward to film, and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Unlike the majority of American product that gets shoved upon us all at year’s end in order to be fresh in everyone’s brain for Oscar season, foreign films seem to trickle out whenever. Distribution is bad, and getting worse, after all how many foreign language films can you go see right now if you checked your paper. Even a local art house is showing King’s Speech and Black Swan on two screens a piece even if both of these films are now in wide release. Thanks to the wonderful world of region free DVD players, often times DVD’s of current foreign films can be had before they even hit US theaters. I first discovered this phenomenon when I grew tired of waiting for Zhang Yimou’s Hero to come out, and bought a bootleg DVD. Turns out the film was released about a month later, but my patience was already gone. Point is this is happening all the more, and well if you’re resourceful enough it isn’t hard to locate these films, which is wonderful considering how obscure and buried they often get especially for cinephiles living in the suburbs. For movie theater purists though, well get bent.

I was amazed though that this time many of the films popping up on critics top ten lists were released quite early in the year. I left the theater after seeing Black Swan wondering just when the hell all the Oscar bait was going to be released, not realizing that most of the year’s best films trickled out so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. Early releases like Roman Polanski’s excellent Ghost Writer, Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg all hit theaters long before Memorial Day weekend. Even a pair of summer blockbusters worked wonders with critics and both Toy Story 3 and Inception have earned plenty of year end recognition. Perhaps the year’s best reviewed film, The Social Network was released in September which doesn’t often happen for most Oscar hopefuls.

In the next few weeks some more films will trickle out. I’m looking forward to a few, but many of the films I’m keeping an eye out for came and went and now the wait for DVD is on. It’s virtually impossible to see “everything” from any given year. Long ago I set up the 50 film benchmark, and consider it last year’s New Year’s resolution but I hit that benchmark this year. The mark of any good year of cinema is whether or not I find 10 worthy films before I hit that 50 film mark. To answer your query, I found more than enough. Rather than cop out and deliver a top 15 or 20, or split it up amongst foreign and domestic, I’m sticking with ten. Read on and there just might be a supplemental list of add-ons that were good but not quite up to par.

I realize that every list is going to draw some dissention. There’s going to be a film that you might think is the best of the year that I don’t have on my list. The odds are I liked it but perhaps it didn’t hit me hard enough. After all History of Violence didn’t make my top 15 of 2005 list and five years later I have a hard time thinking of a film better than it from that year (aside from Sin City). Time will shape this list, perhaps as I see more films, maybe when I revisit a few with some perspective, or maybe my mood will change, who knows. As of today though this is the list:

10. Wild Grass - France/Italy Alain Resnais

Still got it, could be a theme of some very veteran directors this year. Manoel de Oliveira didn’t let turning 100 slow him down from making several films, so by comparison Alain Resnais seems wet behind the ears at a youthful 87. Wild Grass is part of a wonderful re-emergence of Resnais which brings back a large portion of the cast of his excellent Private Fears in Public Places. As with that film, he sets up wonderfully pedestrian plots and then with a mind blowing subtlety completely avoids every expected twist. It’s that type of mastery of craft that can only come with six decades of making films. He doesn’t seem like he’s lost any of that anarchistic bravado that made Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad art house classics 50 years ago. Here a plot about an older man who finds a middle aged woman’s wallet and begins to develop a fascination/obsession with her that avoids all the trappings of stalker obsession that we’ve grown accustomed to. Months later I still don’t know how he did it, but for an exercise in how to remain relevant into your 80s, hunt this film out.

9. The Ghost Writer - Germany/UK/France Roman Polanski

Guess whose back on the scene? The world’s most infamous director is still not welcome in America and is still finding a way to craft masterpieces. Perhaps I misjudged and assumed The Pianist would be his final triumph back in 2002. His follow up was a somewhat flawed and very unnecessary adaptation of Oliver Twist, but don’t overlook the early release. Typically anything that can be construed as a “political thriller” usually bores me to tears and has me running for a good zombie film as an antidote, but Polanski did the very limited genre a service here and had forced my hand to possibly re-examine the whole lot of these films. That might be a misstep after all how many Roman Polanski’s are there in the world. This is the director of Chinatown doing what he does best, slowly involving a protagonist and us as viewers into a story that is bigger than we could imagine, pulling the rug out from under us a few times. He keeps us in the dark as Ewan McGregor is, and we never know more than he does, in fact often it seems we know less. The excellent cast easily makes you overlook Kim Catrall’s British accent, in fact she had me believing. Polanski has always allowed for longer takes and his actors room to breath, with a sharp eye for focus. The sky never, ever seems to show a ray of sunlight and well isn’t that just as it should be? It may have been decades but this film, along with Wild Grass have shown that the older generation can still crank out the masterpieces with the best of them.

8. Air Doll - Japan Hirokazu Kore-eda

It may come as no surprise to any of you that Hirokazu Kore-eda is my favorite Japanese director working today. If you are in the minority and wonder “who the hell is that?” then proceed to your Netflix cue and put all of his films in it. For me 2010 was as much about rebounding as ever. I wasn’t overly impressed with Kore-eda’s Still Walking which was disappointing considering how great Nobody Knows and Hana were. This brought me back to his corner. None of his films seem to be anything alike, but he has a sense of delicacy where even the most horrific of acts seem downplayed. I know others might think him overly obvious, but there’s a subtlety to his obviousness if that makes any sense whatsoever. Well let me explain the plot quickly for you, a sex doll gets a heart, and becomes a living person, sort of. It’s not quite the Pinocchio tale that you imagine, after all her owner eventually relegates her to the closet in favor of a new doll. The plot seems ridiculous but I couldn’t help buying into the perverse sense of magic in the film. It’s as absurd as any fairy tale but with a mature sensibility. She gets a job at a local video store where she finds a kind soul but the potential “cool movie references” are downplayed tremendously. Things work out the way you’d almost expect in a Kore-eda film but the journey is certainly something.

7. Mother - South Korea Bong Joon-ho

There has been a great deal of love for South Korean cinema in the past decade. I’d say a large part of that has to do with Bong Joon-Ho who probably would be elected most likely to be co-opted by Hollywood, although I’m surprised the Old Boy franchise hasn’t been bastardized by Hollywood yet. After all they’ve already helped ruin Let the Right One in for everyone. Mother isn’t a horror film, but then again was The Host? This picks up a little with the grim murder plot of Memories of Murder and takes on a whole new dimension. An overprotective mother wouldn’t be a great subject for a movie, after all Psycho kinda did plenty for everyone. However a mother protecting her accused son whose actually mentally retarded gives it a new twist. For her to simply assume her boy is innocent because what mother wouldn’t, takes the story into an interesting who-done-it that like most of those stories isn’t terribly important who the guilty party is because often no one’s hands are clean. Kim Hye-ja is excellent as the title character who is our hero but often hard to really root for. Can’t help feeling she’s a little unstable and certainly won’t allow anything to alter her course. Keep ‘em coming Bong, I’m a fan.

6. Dogtooth - Greece Giorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth easily gets my award for strangest film of the year. Sure Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void is the most “tripped out” film of the year, but that film was about an hour too long and lost a lot of steam. This is a film where you’re slowly adjusted to the strange world and little by little it starts to make sense in a way that defies common logic. Basically a wealthy Greek man has decided his kids aren’t suited to enter into the real world . A very blatant and easy parable of not just over protective parents, but the constant stream of misinformation and giant wall recalls plenty of Iron Curtain parallels. Early on we wonder just what the hell is going on. We hear English words being translated completely wrong and wonder if something is wrong with the subtitles, but no that’s the parents and their steady stream of misinformation they’re feeding their kids. At times it recalls Salo, but not in a disgusting way, and it’s subtle surrealism is more along the lines of Bunuel and Ripstein but I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like this. Of course European films have been known to occasionally throw some graphic sex in to get anyone outside of an art house to notice, but it’s effective and certainly not as gratuitous as other films of the kind. The few outbursts of violence however are truly shocking, including one related to the title of the film which has to be seen to truly be understood. Don’t expect this to hit any theater near you ever, but it can be found and for all those people looking for something a little out of the ordinary you’d do well to hunt it out.

5. Please Give - US Nicole Holofcener

I remember in 1996 hearing it was the “Year of the Woman” mainly because everybody seemed to REALLY like Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill. In the world of film some people are applying that here. In the wake of Katheryn Biegelow’s Oscar I’m sure plenty of people were wondering what doors would open for females in film. For most people Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right was the one to top the non-existent list of best female directed film of the year. It had some star power, made it to a few theaters in your neighborhood and was one of those films that Hollywood loves to take credit for making. Truth be told that film was so powerfully liberal it made me sick, and I tend to lean towards the left. That aside slipping through the cracks was Nicole Holofcener’s vastly superior Please Give, which had some recognizable faces if not outright stars. I was turned on to the film from watching The Kids Are All Right and hearing it described as the film you wished Woody Allen was still making. A novel approach it’s a film where no one is entirely good or bad, everyone gets a few laughs, and everyone is able to gain our sympathy at various times. Easily juggling an ensemble cast that never seems to wear thin on you. Perhaps Oliver Platt was a precarious choice for a man who’d have an affair with anyone let alone someone attractive, but his face betrays his skill as an actor who still manages to emit a wonderfully laid back warmth that helps to anchor a cast of largely neurotic women. By all means this film deserves to be seen by more people.

4. White Material - France Claire Denis

Well I almost wanted to call Please Give the best film directed by a female this past year, but well Claire Denis had something to say about it as the art houses resident Queen Bee for two decades. White Material might very well be her best film, certainly impressed me far more than any other film of hers I’ve seen. For this she returns to her roots somewhat by setting it back in Africa, but this is nowhere near the safe haven for white’s that Chocolat was. In fact it’s quite doomed, and we know it. A few fragmentary shots at the beginning show us the end of it all, but it isn’t until she backs up a bit that these start to make sense. There is an aura of death and foreboding throughout the film largely because of it’s cryptic opening, but there is no hiding from the ensuing insanity. Perhaps it is a criticism that should be levied that nearly every white made film about Africa features whites in all the lead roles, but here that white meddling doesn’t go unnoticed or unpunished. Isabelle Huppert is the perfect choice to play a domineering and woefully stubborn matriarch whose determination gives her a feeling of invulnerability here. She’s no stranger to strong willed and often wrong women in movies and although it’d be presumptuous to say this is her finest performance, it is at least among her best. Denis rarely seems to work on a scale this large, and her films usually steer away from violence, with a few very notable exceptions, but it strikes all the harder when you see it. She can make a film whisper quiet and then bludgeon you over the head before you even know it. Like the best films, this is an experience one that will envelop you into its world rather than simply visiting it for a brief time. This can get my official vote as the year’s best film from a female director.

3. The Fighter - US David O. Russell

Sometimes a preview for a film can really send you the wrong signal. I first saw a commercial for this and saw Mark Whalberg sweeping a street in a working class neighborhood on the East Coast and thought “Oh boy, it’s Invincible part 2”. Although Christian Bale looking cracked out, the fact that David O. Russell was directing it, and an appearance in the Chicago Tribune’s top ten list made me think maybe this film was a little better than let on. I went and checked it out and was instantly blown away. Many have tried to make their mark on the boxing film but few have really succeeded. I mean Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull, Rocky, and you have to go back a long time before that. On it’s surface though this is something of a typical sports movie. Everyone loves an underdog especially one who makes good after years of heartache and disappointment, overcoming odds etc. However in this film it’s the supporting players who really mix it up. Melissa Leo is incredible as the loving mother who simply doesn’t get it, and the cast of sisters make for a grotesque Greek chorus. Christian Bale should get an Oscar for his work here because honestly I haven’t seen a better performance from anyone all year. Amy Adams has earned a reputation as one of the best actresses working today for a reason. Wahlberg has a difficult role because he has to be essentially an emotional pushover for the majority of the picture, and it’s not always easy being meek, especially when the rest of the room is in hysterics. The fight scenes are all shot excellently, and all seem to have their own unique feel ala-Raging Bull. If there’s anything you should be going to the theater to see right now, this is it.

2. Inception - US Christopher Nolan

Well the first great film I saw this year was damn near the greatest. Like 2008 this was not the best year for American films, by comparison, and like that year it was a summer blockbuster from Christopher Nolan that won my heart. Inception showed that there was more than a few grand, or very, very grand ideas kicking around Nolan’s brain. The script reportedly took 10 years to write or finish, and well it seemed worth the wait. As high concept narrative acrobatics the film is incredibly fun to dissect, and it’s had more written on it than even Shutter Island and the Black Swan. However at it’s core it’s closest comparison is probably D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. After all that was high concept with a simple message, simply running on a theme of intolerance for four stories, crossing them together with a few rescue scenes. That is belittling arguably the greatest silent film ever made, but you can see the parallels. The dream within a dream and so on structure of this is what you might call a heist film but there is a rescue to be had, just like the man needed to be saved from the gallows in Intolerance. Along the way Nolan playfully cuts between multiple storylines each with its own unique look, feel, and subplot and somehow we manage to care about every one of them. There’s just a whole lot of everything going on, but it’s the simplicity of it broken down into the foundations of cinematic language that make it so appealing, an art film with a James Cameron budget, something usually costly for any studio to venture out at, but after The Dark Knight how could you say no. The beauty is people actually seemed to get it, the film worked and although South Park may have taken it’s obligatory poke at it, you can’t diminish the wonderful audacity of this film and the success at which it was pulled off.

1. Carlos - Germany/France Olivier Assayas

Well here it is, up until I started writing this I didn’t know what was going to top my list, in fact I actually started the intro to this post before settling on the ranking. Perhaps it seems that I am a fan of the audacious, the pretentious, the ludicrous, well sometimes. Inception may have been high concept with an epic feel, but Olivier Assayas’ film is just plain epic. Coming in at 333 minutes it’s a tour-de-force broken up into three separate films. To me this is what I wished Steven Soderbergh’s Che was. The fact that this is compelling from start to finish is unbelievable, there are some films that can’t sustain interest for 30 minutes let alone 5 hours. Narratively speaking this is among Assayas’ most strait forward films. He doesn’t jumble us around, things follow a logical order, we don’t get confused and we always seem to know what’s going on. Perhaps he knew his subject was compelling enough to sustain our interest. It’s never easy making a film about a real life terrorist or serial killer, and its even harder to get us to sit through his actions for any extended period of time. Rather than witness a bright young man succumb to his own demons, this film shows us multiple sides of Carlos. We see him as a very flawed person very early on. His ideals seem right, but his personality leaves something to be desired. You can understand his charm and at the same time his repulsion. A commitment to ideals yet a streak of villainy. This is grand stuff and the type of thing that makes for the most profound of cinema. Olivier Assayas bit off quite a bit, but in the end he managed to produce a masterpiece, and the year’s best film.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Lolita (1962)



Well sorry for the lack of posts this month, holidays and all if that's a viable excuse. My 90s research has come to something of a complete halt while I play catch up with 2010 releases. I've seen quite a bit this year, and anticipate that I may in fact get a top ten list done before the year ends, so go ahead an pat me on the back, but I understand if you would rather wait until you can see it. I didn't think the decade lists would take anywhere near as long as they did, and will take longer still. Unfortunately the more films I see from a decade the more I have to revisit to "double check" and well it just makes it more complicated. So continuing on, here's another Kubrick review to tide you over for the holidays, and perhaps this time next week I'll have my top 10 of 2010 ready to go.


Lolita (1962)

Well now controversy is something that has floated around Stanley Kubrick throughout his career. The fiasco of Spartacus was bad enough, having most of his film brutally cut to appease censors and virtually deny the very essence of the work. Following it up, Kubrick however chose to tackle the era's most popular, and by far most controversial book, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Nabokov's book was remarkably successful, but the common perception was that it was completely unfilmable. At this point in time the production code was still in effect (it would be another few years before the GMRX system was put in place), and how on earth could you make a movie about a middle aged man's love affair with a "nymphet" as Nabokov named them? The answer seemed to be impossible, and many critics of the time held that opinion when they saw the final product. Nabokov, despite being the only credited screenwriter was likewise disappointed with the resulting film, and accused Kubrick of running rampant with his original idea.

The truth is, the film is largely faithful to the book. Most of the plot points are there, albeit some things were trimmed for length (the film is already a whopping 153 minutes). However there weren't any particularly large changes, with one exception. Naturally the film had to use some clever cuts and trimmings to make it street legal, but one rule of the old code was sinners needed to be punished, and particularly a murder in cold blood had to somehow be avenged, an unofficial “eye for an eye” rule if you will. In this regard I almost cringed at the end when the epilogue states (in titles) that Humbert Humbert died of a coronary while awaiting trial. How else would he have been narrating this? I also might have to fault Kubrick (or Nabokov) for the sporadic use of narration. The book was written entirely in a first person tone, and although all the scenes in this film take place from Humbert's viewpoint, his commentary and narration are extremely sparse. Also the mingled language of French verses periodically thrown in is completely excised from the film, a change that I don't particularly object to.

The casting is absolutely perfect. Shelly Winters shines extremely well as the vulgar, boisterous, and criminally unrefined Charlotte Haze. True to her character, Kubrick sets her up early as she butchers the pronunciations of all the artists recreations she has in her bedroom. James Mason typically delivered stellar performances, but aside from perhaps Bigger Than Life he has never had a better opportunity to shine than he does here. This is the first time Kubrick worked with Peter Sellers, and like their future collaboration in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick is giving Sellers free reign to create as many interesting and quirky characters as he can. Nearly every time Quilty is on camera he is under a different guise and using a different voice. Aside from that I think Sellers completely captures the character as he was in the book, and the same can be said for the rest of the cast.

Kubrick's scale was remarkably smaller on this film after the mega-budgeted Spartacus, and I always chuckle in the beginning when Quilty refers to himself as "I am Spartacus, come to free the slaves". I'm not sure who the credit for this line can be given, but it certainly deserves a nice chuckle. This inside joke is one that permeates the film and its numerous references to Hollywood (which were included in the book as well). Ironic then that this being the only film of Kubrick's to directly mention Hollywood was the first film he made outside of the US. Lolita began Kubrick's British exile, where he would remain making films for the rest of his extremely brilliant career. The nature of the story however, allows Kubrick to take quite a scenic road trip, as the film bounces all over the place.

Kubrick's style that began being cultivated from his first feature is even more accomplished here. The Haze household is first shown in an Ophuls like tracking shot that obliterates walls and defies ordinary perception. Perhaps it calls attention to the house being a set, and therefore artificial, but it makes for an impressive introduction. Kubrick was already getting to be well known for his tracking shots, and this film supplies quite a few of them, setting up one of the modern trends in film making to open with a long shot. The economics of it are there, but Kubrick never being a director to call attention to economics, sets the shot up more as a breakdown of the geography of the house itself. True to form, his style of shooting, was one already evident in many director’s work, making it yet another playfully self aware reference when Lolita complains about European films.

One of the things that I felt was easier to grasp here in the movie rather than the book was the similarities between Charlotte and Lolita. Humbert makes a reference to how Charlotte resembled Lolita at that age in the book, but here acting takes over. The tantrums of Lolita's are done almost exactly like Charlotte's outbursts. The two lose their temper consistently and when they do you can almost sense that they are the same woman just at different ages. This is due to fantastic work from both Winters and Lyon. I must also commend Mason for his complete naiveté during the early scenes when Charlotte is trying to seduce him. He plays it so clueless and "European" that you have to laugh. I wasn't sure exactly how to take his blatant chuckling at Charlotte's "Confession". Sure the letter was ridiculous, but perhaps his contempt for her was being made overly clear, and the loud laughing was a touch overdoing it.

The film is a disintegration, just like that of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The film progresses and Humbert gradually loses grip on everything. At first he is well responsible and marries into the family still very much in control. Despite Charlotte's domineering personality, he very clearly is able to dictate how things should be in the house. However when he becomes under Lolita's spell he is hopeless. He gives into every one of her whims and charms, and of course his jealousy is his natural downfall. It is steady however, and his casual loss of control isn't completely culminated. In the novel it is after Quilty is murdered that he drives his car off the road and is found by the police. Kubrick ends the film before this, allowing him to be slightly redemptive in his murder. It is clear though when he begs Lolita to come back with him and starts crying when she says no that he has reached the end of his rope. As if to throw one more character trait in, I laugh as Lolita shouts out "Let's keep in touch huh?" after getting the money from Humbert. Lolita is a film that could have very well been one of the all time greats, but unfortunately suffers only slightly by the constraints of the time, and what I feel is a miscommunication between the director and writer.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top Ten of 2009 amongst other things.

The Young Victoria

November 28th, 2010 and I've started wondering, where are all the Oscar contenders? With a little more than a month to go in the year I would have expected a few worthwhile films to start showing up, but either the contenders aren't getting a lot of support or they're still coming. 2002 saw the majority of Oscar contenders released extremely late, I believe three of the five best picture nominees were released in the final week of the year. Perhaps 2010 is shaping up to be a similar year. That said I'm still far ahead of schedule in terms of total films seen than I was this time last year. Now that doesn't mean I'm an expert this year, but probably speaks more to how little I saw last year until well after the year was over. Claire Denis' new film is at the Music Box and perhaps I should go this week. I can't seem to wrap my brain around her work. Every so often I see a film of hers that impresses me for reasons hard to explain and other times I leave feeling nothing and wondering what all the fuss was about. Even my favorite Denis films don't seem to coincide with established tastes, I wonder if anyone else out there thinks Friday Night is her best film.

For the last several years I've been relying on the year end Film Comment list, which usually features a top 20 and sometimes even a top 50. The films are much more auteur based and rarely reflect the award season favorites, although there is occasional overlap. Last year's best picture winner The Hurt Locker topped Film Comments' list so again sometimes great films don't even escape the Academy despite it's reputation. Might not be surprised to note that Avatar wasn't on the top 50. The list can be found in it's entirety here. Which brings me to another topic, the best films of 2009. I know that 2010 is nearing its conclusion and it might seem silly to dredge up yesterday's papers, but I do recall months ago promising to deliver my top ten of 2009 and well I still haven't. Amongst all these various lists of the decade it's sort of slipped my mind, and ironically enough the list itself was finished months ago, I just never published it here. So that said I'll post my list, and get back to rambling:

10. In the Loop / Armando Iannucci
9. District 9 / Neill Blomkamp
8. The Girlfriend Experience / Steven Soderbergh
7. Police, Adjective / Corneliu Porumboiu
6. Antichrist / Lars Von Trier
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox / Wes Anderson
4. Two Lovers / James Gray
3. Paranormal Activity / Oren Peli
2. Up / Pete Docter
1. The Young Victoria / Jean-Marc Vallée

Well some familiar faces on that list I'm sure, and a few films that you might scratch your head at, and perhaps a few that you might not have heard of. Now typically I would justify each entry, but I'd rather overview the list at once. For the majority of the year I didn't have a lot of front-runners for my list. Up was a clear front runner for the best film of the year, a title it held for quite a while, but from reading the list I did find one film better, but more on that later. Paranormal Activity is certainly not "critic" faire, and one film that seemed noticeably absent from many best films of the year lists. A sequel came out this year which didn't soil the legacy of the first but did little to do anything but remind me how amazing that film was. I've seen a LOT of horror films, most of them pretty damn bad. I don't watch every slasher that comes out, and don't even get me started on the Saw films, from Caligari to Paranormal Activity I haven't missed pretty much any of the "important" horror films. In that long lineage there are an extremely few films that actually scared me. Now as a young kid a film like It traumatized me for weeks on end, but can't say in my adult years any film had actually scared me. Paranormal Activity did just that and for that reason alone I had to have it on my list, great genre films are hard to find, and ones that good are nearly impossible.

Now it might seem petty that in a year with 10 best picture nominees from the Academy that I would agree with only two of them. I could argue that it's more the result of Academy oversight than elitism on my part. The Academy has had a long history of ignoring films released early in the year, which I'll use as the excuse for the snubbing of The Girlfriend Experience and Two Lovers. Truth be told I'm not sure The Girlfriend Experience would have gotten much attention anyways, although I doubt any film from the past year could possibly sum up the state of the nation more aptly. Soderbergh had mysteriously floated under the radar since winning an Oscar for Traffic, although I'm certainly in favor of his King Vidor approach to cinema. James Gray's film was released in winter of 2009 which is a dark abyss for any potential award contender. The subsequent meltdown of its lead actor Joaquin Phoenix may have tarnished what he professes to be his last screen performance. Damn shame because although no one seemed to notice it, the film is incredible, and Phoenix and Paltrow could have easily been given nominations at least. No amount of arguing will ever convince me Sandra Bullock was better in the Blind Side or that Meryl Streep needed her 50th best actress nomination for Julie and Julia. Oh well politics still rule the day I guess although they're certainly worth hunting out if you'd like a few honest films that may actually move you.

Lars Von Trier was in rare form with Antichrist which was perhaps the most baffling film I saw from 2009. Willem Dafoe is always worth watching no matter how ridiculously over the top he sometimes gets, and in the hands of a master of melodrama like Von Trier he's brilliant. Unfortunately my American dominance continues, with only one foreign language film. There are some great things happening in Romanian cinema lately, and for my money Police, Adjective might be the best film yet. If you're looking to do some quick catching up, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; 12:08 East of Bucharest; and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. The films dry humor and slow pace might not be fit for everyone, but for my money it was the best foreign language film of the year. The Dardenne's film Lorna's Silence nearly made the list as well, so feel free to hunt that out as well.

In the Loop was for my money the funniest film of the year. It's dialogue was great and as a political satire it's pitch perfect. Fans of Wes Anderson won't really need justification for Fantastic Mr. Fox whose unique animation style went well with a very clever fable. Any other year it would easily be the best animated film of the year, but damn it if Pixar doesn't strike again. I'm still yet to see The Secret of the Kells, which didn't even hit theaters here until this year, but shared a best animated feature nomination with Fox and Up.

So how about that number one? The Young Victoria was something of an afterthought for me. It got some good reviews, but was relegated to a few technical Oscars. I typically loathe period costume dramas particularly Victorian era and with royalty as main characters. With that said The Young Victoria was facing a severe uphill battle, the fact that I liked the film was amazing, but I wouldn't have guessed it would be the best film of the year. Perhaps 90% of all films are essentially boy-meets-girl stories. There are always variations of this theme, perhaps the love story is secondary but well if decades of pop music and films have taught us anything, there is nothing more powerful than a REALLY good love story. I was sold on these characters, prisoners of their class in some ways who build ever so slowly a real, solid love. In terms of the look of the film it is without peer and deservedly took home an Oscar for it's costumes. For me this is the period film that could, one to triumph over the typically pedestrian constraints of its well known subjects. Maybe I'm more romantic than I let on, but I cant' think of a higher recommendation for the film than saying it was the best 2009 had to offer. Emily Blunt and especially Rupert Friend are outstanding in their roles, and as the above picture would indicate, they looked quite good in their roles to boot.

So hopefully it won't take me until next November to post my ten best of 2010, so come on Hollywood bring out those Oscar hopefuls already.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Spartacus (1960)


Spartacus (1960)

For many years Stanley Kubrick has gotten a bum deal on DVD. Sure all of his films from Killer's Kiss through Eyes Wide Shut are available, but very few of them have anything to offer beyond a decent transfer. So it is odd that the best DVD of any of Kubrick's films happens to be the most disregarded film of his career. It may also be honest that the least characteristic DVD is for his least characteristic film. A few special editions later and another Criterion treatment for Paths of Glory and the situation has improved dramatically. Spartacus is legendary for numerous reasons, it was a massive production, it garnered plenty of awards, its screen credit to Dalton Trumbo effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist, its restoration set a new standard in film preservation, and of course it was the last film Kubrick made before his self imposed exile to England.

With this type of reputation and so much surrounding the film before anyone even sees it, it is very hard to take a fresh look at the picture. I remember the first time I saw it, unaware of most of these stigmas, I considered the film a poor man's version of Ben-Hur. Spartacus isn't Ben-Hur just like Stanley Kubrick isn't William Wyler. Both men were perfectionists, but each had a much different approach, and Wyler despite being showered with Oscars in his career, never did earn the long term respect and esteem that critics have assigned Kubrick. So what happens when you take an art house director and give him all the resources of a major studio and their biggest production of the year? Well you get a well executed film. Kubrick shows his versatility and his ability to adapt. For people who believed that he needed massive amounts of preparation and had to reshoot every scene every possible way before he was satisfied may want to check this film out. It was made on a tight budget, under a strict shooting schedule, and was a remarkably collaborative effort.

Listening to the commentary on the DVD, nearly everybody takes credit for everything on it, except one man. Howard Fast was the author of the book on which the film was based, and he has condemned the film on nearly all grounds. Fast was replaced by Trumbo because he was incapable of adapting his own book. Therefore he takes great pains to point out what was changed and why he thinks that he did it better in the book. The one moment he seems proud of in the film is during Spartacus' initial gladiator battle with Draba (Woody Strode). Draba's death at the hands of Crassus (Laurence Olivier) was one of many, many scenes edited out because of the blood splattered reverse shot. You hear throughout the commentary just how much was cut, and the result is baffling. Being accustomed to modern pictures, most of the footage cut seems to be nitpicking. I'll admit some of the film probably should have been trimmed, because unlike most of Kubrick's films, Spartacus' 196 minutes don't fly by.

The pacing seems off, because of the numerous hands that got on the film. The footage that was cut, the footage that was lost, and a cast of actors that all felt that their role should have been more important. Nearly everyone who appears in the film at one point or another wrote additional lines and tried to have their part upgraded. Tales of divas throughout make a few chuckles, but again with a cast like this (in one regard far superior to Ben-Hur) you can't be surprised that some actors didn't want a little more attention. The actors present give great performances. Ustinov and Laughton have a remarkable rapport with each other. They have a unique chemistry which from Ustinov's own account was the result of much rehearsing. In many ways they come off as old friends, the same way one has to laugh at Laughton's back and forth tug-of-war with Elsa Lancaster in Witness for the Prosecution.

Douglas' characteristic intensity seems made for this type of role, and although I always thought him a little old for the part, he has a commanding presence that makes him appear a natural leader as Spartacus. He never really seems to get comfortable in chains, but there are moments throughout when he sheds a little human side that make for quite touching passages. The first of these is when Varinia (Jean Simmons) is pouring him wine in the gladiator camp, and he stops her and gently touches her hand. This connection is renewed later following Varinia's obligatory bathing scene, which of course leads to Spartacus Jr. coming out at the end. The man is born a slave, and is treated like an animal at the outset. In fact he even looks like an animal when we first see him, covered in dirt, in rags, in desperate need of a shave. He doesn't look too far removed from the apes at the beginning of 2001. The goal is gradually to humanize him as the film progresses, with his final moments, sacrificing Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with his first and only look at his child completing the cycle.

As a production there are numerous tricks used to convey opulence and splendor in a blockbuster production. Matte paintings are used throughout, and I never noticed that ancient Rome is in fact about 90% matte painting. If it hadn't been pointed out in the commentary I wouldn't have noticed that half of the Roman Legions during the decisive final battle was actually a duplicate matte painting of the moving troops (the row of legions behind don't move). I think part of the credit for these flawless tricks come from the restoration work which so painstakingly matched every shot and quite possibly fixed the color comparisons between the two, making for a less obvious contrast as opposed to other films of the period with more noticeable backgrounds. Hearing about the particular job of restoring this film made me not jealous for those involved in the project, it sounded like absolute agony, but what a fine result.

Kubrick the auteur doesn't have a great deal of time to shine here. However look hard enough and there are enough complicated, well choreographed tracking shots to suit the standard Ophuls fan. There unfortunately isn't a great deal for deep focus composition, because of the technical limitations at the time for shooting in such a wide aspect ratio. The film does have a decent amount of closeups however, which isn't too common with a film of this size. However most of the film is composed of long shots where we get to see "everything that's going on". However one may believe that in the case of this film some of the longer shots may have been choreographed to save valuable time shooting scenes over and over from different angles for coverage. On the other hand, looking at every other film of Kubrick's this practical application seems an inaccurate one.

Spartacus is still a flawed film though. I find it a bit of a mess. It is overly long, and some scenes are dreadfully unnecessary. The famous oysters scene is completely pointless in the film, and despite the controversy surrounding it should have probably been left on the cutting room floor in the restoration. There also seems to be an ongoing battle in the film for entertainment vs. historical accuracy that makes some things inauthentic, and other moments boring. The only time the matte paintings are distractingly obvious comes after the final fight when Crassus and Batiatus are surveying the dead. The whole shot looks like a dreadful soundstage and breaks some of the allure and continuity in it. As a historical epic Spartacus is a remarkable achievement, but I think that it is too much. The cast is too good, the scale too large, and the length too long. A little moderation would have served this film well, but you never help but feel like you are trying to be forced into thinking the film is spectacular.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Best of the Decade - The 80s

Ugh, another decade and what at first seemed a somewhat simple task turned into agony. Nearly a week ago I thought I had wrapped up my research, and then I decided to watch one more film, then one more, then another, etc. My hope was to uncover that one remaining film to crack the list and I believe I did. Oh well you can only fit ten right?

Now the 80s have gotten a lot of bad pub as a decade of excessive cinema, an era were Hollywood blockbusters took over, the personal cinema of expression was gone, international film movements lacked the revolutionary call to action that the previous decades had. I imagine that in the 20 years since that decade ended the opinion has changed dramatically. Sometimes it takes awhile for a film movement to really draw attention to itself. Many people were “hearing” of the films coming out of Taiwan in the 80s into the early 90s but most of these films received scant distribution and rarely released in any home video form. Taiwan became one of the last countries to have a “new wave” and with the films of principally Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien Taiwanese cinema was officially on the map. Despite the proliferation of DVD, VHS, and now Blu-Ray these particular films remain extremely hard to come by. Only in the age of the internet with enterprising young uploaders can some of the films be found, and sadly it seems many of Yang and Hou’s films can only be seen via grainy bootlegs.

The other major film movement that emerged in the 80s came from Iran. Iran became largely the first Middle Eastern country to establish a critically acclaimed cinema worldwide. Of course most official policy banned nearly all the films that wound up winning awards but the films coming out of Iran in the 80s primarily from Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami served as a second coming of neorealism to many critics. Both directors had their own international breakthroughs in the 90s so for many the discovery of Iran’s great wave of cinema was done posthumously, although they haven’t exactly stopped making worthwhile films. Not since Youssef Chahine had their been a recognized cinematic auteur from the Middle East. Their films started opening the door ever so slightly to films of neighboring countries and offering a refreshing perspective of life in Iran that Westerners know so very little about.

Although Taiwan and Iran may have been the freshest new faces to the international festival circuit plenty of other countries were making waves cinematically. Hong Kong slowly started moving from the world of martial arts to modern action with a string of films from John Woo and producer-director Tsui Hark among many others. Not to sound repetitive many of these Hong Kong action films gained notoriety in the 90s as a source of inspiration for nearly every action film made in Hollywood. Frantic editing, slow motion, and an absurd amount of casualties were the norm to the point that nearly every filmmaker in Hong Kong had to conform. Wong Kar-Wai’s first film As Tears Go By bears nearly all the marks of a generic Hong Kong action film, but he’s a director who I’ll get into more next decade.

Mainland China emerged from decades of obscurity with their now legendary 5th Generation of filmmakers. In a brief period of openness new filmmakers were able to make films about China’s past, sometimes critical, not always flattering, and of course often times banned. However with Chen Kaige’s The Yellow Earth, Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief Chinese film was finally being seen and recognized outside of national borders, and all too often not inside of them. You can say what you will about Kaige and Yimou’s recent work but it’s hard to deny that these were to extraordinary talents that had a whole lot to say in the 80s.

In many ways the decline of communism was being reflected in Eastern Europe cinema. Several directors left for the west and the Soviet Union’s greatest director since Eisenstein (or possibly even better) Andrei Tarkovsky made his final two films outside of the Soviet Union before dying in 1986. Sergei Paradjanov also made his final film, the notably limited Ashik Kerib in 1988 before dying in July of 1990. The USSR wasn’t completely without note though, Elem Klimov made his best and final film in 1985 with Come and See, although he wouldn’t pass away until 2003. Still these would seem like major triumphs compared to the scant output of cinema in the 90s. The 80s are also of note because of the slow but steady emergence of Alexander Sokurov, who would make a much larger splash a few years later.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe Krzysztof Kieslowski was emerging as Poland’s best filmmaker since Andrzej Wajda who made his longest and perhaps greatest film in 1988 with the ten part Decalogue before leaving the iron curtain. Emerging from the tradition of Miklos Jancso was Bela Tarr who began to slowly find his voice in the early 80s before finally settling one what has been his distinct style with Damnation in 1987. Always a proponent of black and white and absurdly long takes his films are yet to attract much of an audience but his fans are certainly enthusiastic.

Theo Angelopoulos was in many ways Greece’s answer to Tarr, who continued to make his own brand of slower paced bleak dramas, eventually bringing home a few festival prizes for his films Voyage to Cythera, The Beekeeper, and Landscape in the Mist which might very well be his best film. Like all too many European directors of this time his fame was largely of reputation, the golden age of foreign film acceptance in the US was long forgotten.

Some of the luminaries who first brought attention to foreign cinema decades earlier were still working in the 80s and quite a few times making outstanding work. Akira Kurosawa directed the great Kagemusha and Ran, Ingmar Bergman made what many consider his ultimate film Fanny and Alexander, Federico Fellini had something of a comeback with Ginger and Fred, and Satyajit Ray continued to prove he was India’s greatest filmmaker with films like The Home and the World.

The 80s were a decade of two major trends in distribution. Most notably was the advent of VHS. Gone were expensive and cumbersome home movie projectors and pricey 16mm prints, and in its place were VCR’s and cassette tapes. Although the quality left much to be desired, it’s importance to the study of film history can never be overestimated. With VCR’s came cable TV and people could now record those oddball classics shown at 4am rather than stay up late to catch ‘em. By the end of the decade laser discs were coming out as the next and much better step in home video, although due to their bulk they never really took off, but certainly set the stage for the future DVD revolution. Along with home video came a remarkable increase in film festivals. Many independent films and foreign films were getting widespread attention at fests and these small gatherings began to attract larger and larger crowds, exemplified in the Sundance festival where more than a few discoveries were made.

Among the new wave of American independent filmmakers were Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Wayne Wang, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, and the Coen brothers among many others. Many went on to big budget Hollywood careers but all started as independent filmmakers working on modest budgets with a unique perspective and something to say and their films in the 80s have stood up far better than the traditional pedestrian Oscar faire of the same time.

American film in general was more than John Hughes, Steven Spielberg, and Top Gun. David Lynch began the decade with the Oscar friendly Elephant Man, then the catastrophic Dune, and finally some bit of redemption with Blue Velvet before making Twin Peaks. Along with the Coens and Tim Burton, he was the most unique talent to emerge in the decade. In short order though the work of already established directors like Woody Allen, Philip Kauffman, Sydney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, and Martin Scorsese.

Over in Britain a few filmmakers were emerging as well. Peter Greenaway stepped up from the shadow of his structuralist past when he made such remarkable cinematic puzzles like The Draughtsman’s Contract, Drowning by Numbers, Belly of an Architect, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Not to be outdone Stephen Frears, Terence Davies, James Ivory, Neil Jordan, Derek Jarman, and American exile Terry Gilliam helped established a very vital new British cinema. A few previously established directors like Nicholas Roeg, John Boorman, and of course Stanley Kubrick made some of their best work in the 80s. The British produced Chariots of Fire and Gandhi remarkably won back to back Oscars for best picture proving that international acceptance of British cinema was at an all time high.

Although documentaries are verboten on these lists it is worth noting that in the 80s a new wave of pseudo-documentaries began to emerge blurring the lines between fact and fiction in ways that surpassed even Robert Flaherty’s cinema of recreation. Two films in particular Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me aren’t even called documentaries by some. Morris’ film helped free an innocent man from jail, and well Moore would prove that controversy would be nothing new in the future to him.

Now I believe now would be a decent time to forego the preposterous idea that I could consolidate all of 80s cinema into one blog post (same can be said for every previous blog). Instead I’d like to talk about the 80s on a more personal level. Unlike the previous decades I was actually alive during the 80s. As such this is the decade where I saw my first films, I’m told my first trip to the theater was a revival of Pinocchio so not exactly contemporary faire, but truth be told I was probably about 1-2 years old and don’t remember it either way. In case you were wondering yes I have seen Pinocchio since then and have owned it on DVD two different times if that counts for anything.

The first film I remember seeing in theaters that I was truly excited for was Masters of the Universe in 1987. Yes with Dolph Lundgren in all his mullet glory I was probably not yet 4 and so extremely excited to be seeing some of my favorite toys brought to life on screen. As awful as the movie might be, and the show was far worse, it still holds a special place in my heart. In fact many of my “favorite” movies of the 80s are personal favorites that may or may not receive any degree of appreciation for anyone who didn’t likewise grow up with them.

I thought in this case to perhaps offer a second top ten of the decade. Not of the “best” films but of some of my “favorites”. These are relative terms and clearly the films that are my favorites I should think are the best but well have you ever tried to argue that Big Trouble in Little China is a “better” film than Raging Bull? Or that Rocky IV is vastly superior to Amadeus or Platoon? So pardon the next paragraph while I expand on my favorite sub-genre of 80s cinema, the childhood favorite.

For many people growing up in the 80s they watched the hell out of films like ET, The Goonies, Short Circuit, Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride. Now I have no problem with any of those films and I’ve probably seen all of them at least 2 times a piece. However I was raised on action, and if there was a ninja all the better. I still drop my remote every time Rocky IV or Predator are on TV, and they seem to be on an awful lot. As a child I re-enacted Big Trouble in Little China complete with sound effects and tried to reluctantly drag friends and family into my re-enactments. Nearly every trip to the video store saw me rent one of two films either Return of the Jedi or Flash Gordon. When I became obsessed with Queen around the age of 9 my love for Flash Gordon got even more extreme.

Whereas most parents try to keep their children away from films that have “thematic elements and smoking” my parents didn’t seem to have the same objections, or my maybe my mom briefly did only to relent instantaneously. It was a father-son tradition to watch every new Arnold Schwarzenegger film in theaters. I’m not sure when this started, but I can tell you after Junior we were much more apprehensive, and yes we did in fact see Junior in theaters. Films in the 80s were violent, much more so than today. Sure horror movies and trendy zombie flicks are all about gore, but generic movies were extremely bloody in the 80s. When’s the last time you watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Temple of Doom, both films received PG ratings at the time and feel free to do a body count next time.

I suppose violence wasn’t such a big deal because people didn’t shoot each other as much? Maybe it was all gangster raps fault or video games once they got past 8-bit graphics. I’m not even going to attempt to debate this issue, but I can fondly recall going to Toys ‘R’ Us and walking through an entire isle of toy guns, maybe even two. Our personal toy gun arsenal looked like something out of a Punisher comic, but well these are things that my future children will never believe happened, just like I can’t believe little kids used to run around playing with real BB guns a generation before us.

Although trash films were of prevalence in the 60s and 70s in particular, there was plenty of good things to find in the 80s. Lucio Fulci made such great shockers like The New York Ripper, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery. Regular Italian shockers like Dario Argento and Mario Bava continued upon previous successes, usually more bloody and less critically respected. Although as far as zombies are concerned I can’t think of another film from that decade I’d rather watch than Return of the Living Dead.

It was also a unique decade where genre filmmakers got some degree of critical recognition even if most of it was after the fact. Arising from the dredges of serial slashers John Carpenter had a pretty fantastic decade with Escape From New York, The Thing, and the aforementioned Big Trouble. Wes Craven hit pay dirt with Nightmare on Elm Street, and David Cronenberg fashioned a virtually indescribable cinema that somehow someway was still technically horror. I’d wager instantly that the films of Carpenter and Cronenberg will be more frequently watched in 20 years than Chariots of Fire or Terms of Endearment.

Anyways I’ve passed on the personal list of favorites but felt they deserved some recognition here. So I selected the ten best films of the decade in my opinion. Again these are personal choices, but relax Rocky IV is not on the list, although I may one day kick myself for it’s exclusion. Most of the films are films as such but one was originally made for TV which puts it in a unique category for this list. I again limited things to fiction, which meant that Chris Marker’s cinema-essay Sans Soleil was ineligible by my previously established criteria. So bitch and moan all day long this was definitely the hardest list I’ve had to do, and I imagine the 90s list will be even harder, but I got some time for that yet.

10. Brazil (1985) UK - Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam’s post-Python cinema has always been a little messy. Sometimes he bits off more than he can chew and has had several failed productions along the years. Nearly every one of his films is either hated passionately by critics and/or severely butchered by studios. Brazil is one of those typical hard luck stories for Gilliam whose film was a failure, was re-edited, and considered a unique looking film but not worth much under the surface. It took about a decade or so but people started to see the light and well now it’s not so outrageous to consider it Gilliam’s best film and one of the best of the decade. I’d say never before had Gilliam’s wit and vision been so perfectly realized as in the director’s cut of Brazil. His futuristic city has no shortage of wires and tentacles floating about but it works. There’s so much going on a single viewing wouldn’t do it justice. That might be a cliché but every frame is completely filled to capacity that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to slow the film down while watching it just to take it all in. At it’s heart though is something of a love story, a lot of corruption, a conspiracy, and the possibility that we’ve all been taken for a ride by a madman. There’s so much going on that nearly any philosophical reading you wish to apply to Brazil you can find evidence to support it, which says this film has everything. Except of course for people who only are interested in minimalist cinema.

9. Paris, Texas (1983) US/West Germany/France - Wim Wenders

During Wim Wenders’ self imposed exile from Germany he took his American obsession right to the source. At once a continuation on his elegiac road movies of the 70s and the ultimate testament to it, Paris, Texas is probably Wenders’ finest hour. Sure Wings of Desire which was his triumphant return to German cinema is a masterpiece but I can’t think of another film that sums up what a director is all about than this. Written by Sam Shepard the film takes its time to set everything up. Our main character played by Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t even speak for the first 30-40 minutes. When he does finally say something you get a sense that his words “mean something”. The two reunions between him and his estranged wife played by Nastassja Kinski are among the best scenes in cinema history, especially the second which would scarcely leave a dry eye in the house. Unlike other films with enigmatic loners this however isn’t difficult to watch, partially because the always interesting Stanton has never been better in a film. It’s a rare luxury for a film to set up so much atmosphere, and not bore it’s audience to pieces.

8. Raising Arizona (1987) US - Joel and Ethan Coen

Thank the lord that brought us the cinema of the Coens. Although their first film was a perfectly realized neo-noir, it was their second, their first stab at comedy that to me is their best. The film is hilarious at parts and has the same type of feel of a classic screwball comedy, something they attempted to do directly with Hudsucker Proxy and failed. Here the characters work, from the most minor bit player to the two leads. Kinda interesting to think the film features 3 Oscar winners in it’s cast, who are all superb. Nicholas Cage’s blank detachment and good natured dope with no common sense might be the best work he’s ever done. Like nearly all of their films though no character is purely evil or purely good, even Holly Hunters cop is the one pushing them to kidnap a baby, and you get the feeling that as lecherous as John Goodman and William Forsythe’s ex-cons might be there are moments when they seem truly human, and really dumb to boot. Their loud screaming when breaking out of jail, and when forgetting Nathan Jr. is so over the top it goes from funny to stupid to really funny in very short order. Even more than in Blood Simple though Barry Sonenfeld’s insane wide angle camera work displays as virtuosity completely unheard of in comedy films. Nearly everyone has their own favorite Coen film, but I think I’ll submit my vote for Raising Arizona.

7. Predator (1987) US - John McTiernan

Yeah you thought all the childhood favorites were being blacklisted into that also ran list didn’t you? Well I couldn’t kid myself, Predator simply put is “The single greatest action film ever made”. It’s spawned a couple of lackluster sequels, video games, comics and a whole lot of other spin-offs which do little but to remind us how amazing the original is to begin with. The cast of action stars are incredible, which of course is headed by Arnold, but who can forget the world’s greatest handshake with him and Dillon (Carl Weathers)? The film features two future governors and that guy with the glasses who tells all those jokes about his girlfriend with the big pussy, that’s Shane Black who went on to write Lethal Weapon and direct some films of his own. He wasn’t even the only future director in the cast (not counting Arnold’s one episode of Tales From the Crypt), Bill Duke (the guy who shaves his sweat) has directed several films including Deep Cover and Hoodlum. Seriously though, mowing down the jungle, Dillon’s arm blown off while still firing, Billy cutting his chest, Arnold yelling, oh hell if you’ve ever had testosterone I should be preaching to the choir here. If there’s some reason you haven’t seen this film, then assess your gender, go to a video store, and don’t tell anyone your little secret.

6. Blue Velvet (1986) US - David Lynch

Oddly enough there was a time when I didn’t think this film was weird. Watching it again, and again, and again, and again if feels slightly normal but what a wonderfully demented askew view of the world. I’ve always had a hard/impossible time talking about Lynch’s work and I’m not sure why. Perhaps its because it’s no secret. Everyone knows Lynch’s world these days although few things make me happier than turning someone on to his unique vision. I’ve made it something of a mission to get people to watch this particular film first. To me it’s the ultimate in Lynch. The film that best expresses his ever present obsession with the underbelly of suburbia, a film that has a constant sense of foreboding darkness, slightly surreal but not to the point of confusion. He gives you enough to want more but plenty to satisfy. Some may argue he could have used more restraint in future films, but well there’s no pleasing some people. In fact the films dark violence and the fact that Lynch found a way to make people feel guilty watching a movie not because of what they were watching, but because they liked it, gives this film it’s power. There will always be some who frown upon it, but I have no use for them. You can argue for Eraserhead as his one true completely uncompromised expression of his vision (and Lynch himself would agree with you) and you can say future films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are better, but I don’t think you can find a better place to start than Blue Velvet. Dennis Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth is still to this day the most evil character in film. Oh lord just writing about is making me want to watch it all over again.

5. The Shining (1980) UK/US Stanley Kubrick

Couldn’t expect me to have a party and not invite Stanley Kubrick can you? Although Stephen King wound up hating it, Stanley Kubrick struck gold here. For a filmmaker with a well established reputation to delve into horror and adapt a very popular book might have seemed unnecessary for someone like Kubrick. Most filmmakers start with horror because that’s the only film they can make, and many never escape it. Kubrick took the other approach lending his extraordinary talents to a genre that had been taking a serious beating critically. This film couldn’t have been made today for the simple fact people wouldn’t have the patience for it. It takes awhile before Jack goes mad and Kubrick is in no hurry to reveal it just yet. Things are hinted at, we get glimpses, just enough to scare us but often without any reason why. I’m not ashamed to tell you I had many a nightmare about those creepy ass twins when I first saw this film. It was with this film that Kubrick first got to use a steadicam and the former cameraman couldn’t get enough of it. He let this freewheeling camera cover every inch of the Overlook hotel making it as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny. I think it’s a testament to Kubrick how many of the film’s iconic moments weren’t in the book including the hedge maze and Jack’s all too quotable “Here’s Johnny”. I won’t hesitate for a second to call this the greatest horror film ever made.

4. The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (1980/1983) US Irvin Kershner/Richard Marquand

Often forgotten and overlooked as some of the best films of the 80s are episodes V and VI in Star Wars. Now picking a favorite episode of the original three is akin to picking a favorite child, it’s nearly impossible. As a kid I was certainly a Jedi fan, but the older I got the more I started leaning towards Empire. After all Empire not only features the most Yoda for your money, before Lucas turned him into a back flipping CGI monstrosity. Not only that but the majority of the film has Han Solo and Leia doing their thing. Their dialogue is priceless and my single favorite line in the whole saga comes when Han is about to be frozen and Leia says “I love you” he responds with “I know”. Come on it don’t get any better than that. Both films are outstanding and more than expand and improve upon A New Hope. The added characters and action are all iconic, Lando, Jabba, the Emperor, and love ‘em or hate ‘em I like me some Ewoks. As for Jedi, well that film has plenty going for it, not the least of which is slave Leia, thank you nerdy men. Perhaps from an iconic standpoint they might not have the same appeal as Star Wars, but I’d say they’re on par artistically if not a little better. Again though how much can I say about ‘em that you don’t already know, and good lord am I sick of meeting people who are still willfully ignorant of these films, get with the program people.

3. Raging Bull (1980) US Martin Scorsese

#3 oh lord what could be ahead of this? That might be what you’re thinking as the most universally acclaimed film of the decade sits a little lower than expected. It’s no slight on the film itself, I watched it for the 4th time recently and it is truly amazing, but well I’ll start defending the films ahead of it when I get to them. Like many of the other greatest films ever that pop up on my previous lists I don’t need to strain myself for justification here. The film’s fight sequences are enough to get most people excited with the different styles used on each. However Jake La Motta the character is not an easy man to spend 2 hours with. His penchant for self destruction hurts, the way he trains, the punishment he takes, the all consuming jealousy that eventually destroys him it’s a workout to sit through. De Niro’s performance is justifiably legendary and for many people this should have won a lot more Oscars than just his and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s Oscar loss for best picture is still a huge point of contention even if not everyone agrees with it.

2. Ordinary People (1980) US Robert Redford

See how I set that up? I’m one of those people who thinks that the Academy actually got it right in 1980 by giving the best picture Oscar to Redford’s Ordinary People. I’ve watched this film a few times as I have with Raging Bull and well every time I stand by my initial reaction. Ordinary People to me was arguably the most emotionally affective film I had ever seen. Maybe it was shot close to home for me, but it spoke truths and even if these “ordinary people” were well to do I could still relate to the family. Like Raging Bull this isn’t exactly an easy film to sit through from an emotional standpoint but it does have its rewards and leaves you with a degree of redemption even if you know that things might not ever be alright. Perhaps Redford had an ace in the hole with Pachelbel’s Canon as his musical theme, but whatever the reason this is the best American film of the 80s, there I said it.

1. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) West Germany/Italy Rainer Werner Fassbinder

So did you notice that the top five films on this list (not counting Jedi) were all from 1980? Funny how that happens but I guess you could say I think 1980 is the best year in all of cinema history. I didn’t even include Airplane, which I think is probably the best comedy of the decade. Well for those of you brave souls who’ve seen Berlin Alexanderplatz good for you and welcome to the select club. For those of you who have never heard of it then check it out, it’s actually on DVD now which is something considering the VHS was out of print for nearly 25 years. Some of you may argue that this should be on the list because it might not qualify as a film at all. Conceived in 13 parts with an epilogue the film was originally shown on German TV over the course of a couple weeks. In 1983 it made it’s way to the US where it showed in a few select theaters over a couple days. Now my criteria is simply it’s amazing. This is the best film Fassbinder ever made and the best film to come out of Germany as far as I’m concerned. An epic retelling of Alfred Doblin’s novel. The epilogue is surreal to a point that would make Bunuel proud and Lynch jealous and is the crowning achievement that makes the 15 hours leading up to it so worth it. Perhaps calling it a mini-series can help people watch it rather than saying here’s a 16 hour film. Either way this is the best the decade has to offer, and if you’ll notice this is only the second foreign film to top my best of the decade list.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Well I Did it This Time

Flashback a few days to Monday evening. I was typing up my 80s list, I swear I really was. After making the list and getting a few pages into my overview I noticed my computer was running slow. Listening to . . . And Justice For All it was skipping, this had never happened before so I looked up the task manager. Turns out I had a lot of processes running with the name svchost.exe. I figured one of these was probably too much so I closed it. My computer gave me a 60 second countdown to shut down and I closed everything saved what I was working on an assumed my computer would restart and I'd learn that that was one process that shouldn't be closed. Well not so simple.

My computer shut down just fine but restarting was another matter entirely. In fact five days later it still hasn't restarted. It starts, goes to a Windows XP startup screen, then back to the beginning, over and over and over and over and over again. I tried to start in safe mode, safe mode with networking, safe mode with command prompt, last known configuration that worked, debugging mode, tried rebooting and countless other things. I tried to run a HDD (hard drive diagnostic) test and the 2 minute test took over 12 hours to get half way done. Same set of problems with the longer (100 minutes) test that never got past 20%.

As a hail mary I redownloaded Windows on another computer (the same one I'm typing this on), burnt it to a disc and tried to reinstall, but that worked about as well as waving a wooden stick at my computer. So I'm nearly giving up hope and well computers die, it happens, but of course I didn't have the foresight to save my word documents on to an external hard drive, so it might be goodbye, director index, films by year, and previous writings. It's happened before and it never gets easier to swallow.

So perhaps I'll start from scratch again, type up the next top ten list. Maybe I'll think of another way to fix my computer that might possibly work, or a way to save my documents and just junk my frequently troublesome laptop altogether.

In the meantime I have begun my 90s research, and as an added bonus started a Coen brothers marathon partially because nearly all of their films can qualify for my best of the decade lists and also because I'm psyching myself up for True Grit. I've been enjoying tremendously revisiting some of my favorites, and numerous films that just deserved a second look for whatever reason. I know that the more contemporary my list(s) gets the more people will disagree with nearly every choice, but so be it, I'm sure I wouldn't agree with your list either.

So accept my lame apology for a self inflicted bit of idiocy on my part, and know that more of my witty film writing is just around the corner.

btw if anyone knows anything about fixing this particular problem don't hesitate to let me know

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Paths of Glory

Another week and since Kubrick's 1957 gem was released today on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion (a remarkable improvement upon the feature-less MGM DVD), I figured now would be a good a time as any for this.Paths of Glory (1957)

Every great filmmaker has a certain point in their career. One where they emerge from "promising" to "great". A vague distinction at times it separates the one hit wonders from the legends. For Stanley Kubrick after the independent features Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss he made his first certifiable classic with The Killing. However this post-noir caper with a then remarkable shifting time line was merely the prophecy. It was the film that showed that Kubrick was capable of making great pictures, but not necessarily that Kubrick was a great filmmaker. Paths of Glory, his follow up and second feature co-produced with James Harris would be the one that elevated Kubrick to a higher status. Star Kirk Douglas made a surprise turn as a French Colonel and served double duty as producer. Their relationship was good enough to have Douglas recommend Kubrick for Spartacus after original director Anthony Mann didn't work out. Much has been made of the fall out the two had while making that film and the inevitable ego clash between producer-star and director. Paths of Glory seems the happier idyllic partnership made without tremendously high expectations but a film that has stood up better than nearly all of its better received and hyped contemporaries.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax in one of his exemplary firebrand performances. You know from years of watching Douglas that there is a explosive fire underneath his dignified exterior that is waiting to come out. For the most part Douglas and Kubrick keep his character restrained, but you can sense Dax is boiling over at times, especially considering the hypocritical bureaucracy he has to swallow. In combat though Dax the warrior takes over. Relentlessly blowing his whistle and no matter how doomed his mission might be no one is going to question his particular heroism. They make a clear point of not putting Dax in the same position as the men who refuse to advance and the case of the company that refuses to even get out of the trench. We know the attack is a horrible idea but Dax the soldier is determined to carry out his orders and accepts his ill fate when his fortitude is questioned.

George MacCready plays General Mireau with a degree of sympathy to start but his character quickly becomes the villain. He takes a similar position as Dax when his orders are given to him from General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou who seems born for this part). His men have been cut to shreds and this General likes to pride himself on being in touch with his men and understanding their conflict. He fancies himself a soldier rather than a politician, even if we the viewers aren't quite buying it. When his ability to lead his men is questioned he feels threatened and accepts the ill fated mission of taking the German Ant Hill knowing that his best estimates will have him lose about 65% of his men. When first given his orders he doesn't think he has enough men to hold the hill let alone take it but in a constant show of bravado he does what any emasculated soldier would do, over compensate by biting off far more than he could chew, of course with the particular promise of a promotion or more "glory". Our opinion of this sympathetic General changes very quickly during his trench visit. He routinely asks a few soldiers whether they're ready "To kill some more Germans?" to which most of them unenthusiastically say "Yes sir". When he comes across a soldier who is shell shocked and doesn't respond with the instant answer he's looking for he strikes the man, says there's no such thing as shell shock, and orders the soldier transferred from his regiment. It seems like a scene straight out of Patton but unlike Patton who had already won our sympathy this move seems cold and unfeeling and makes us start to think that despite how "hands on" this Regiment Commander might be we start to see he has lost touch sitting in his opulent chateau commanding his troops from a desk.

It is interesting that our first shot of Dax is bent over washing himself in his quarters. It has him in both a symbolic position of figuratively "washing his hands of it" and also slightly exposed shirtless. Quickly when Mireau enters his quarters with an even more unsympathetic Major (Richard Anderson) who refers to the soldiers as "lower organisms" with a herd mentality the power seems to be in Mireau's hands. Once the unfeeling, ass kissing Major is excused it puts some degree of sympathy back with Mireau, who even after berating the shell shocked soldier seems more human compared to his companion. His "selling" of the mission to Dax is very much the same routine that he was handed. Dax raises the appropriate objections, here's dreadful estimates of casualties which include 5% by their own fire, and eventually is coerced into accepting the mission when Mireau threatens to remove him from command temporarily to "rest". The machismo of war is clearly the enemy here and this entire film can be seen as "the folly of testosterone". Nearly everyone bites off more than they can chew in the act of saving face or for the glory of France. When it is suggested that someone else can do the impossible it makes everyone determined to "man up" to accept the foolish suicidal mission.

It may now be a good time to talk about some of Kubrick's aesthetic choices. Although made in 1957 the film was still shot in 1.66 ratio, despite having wide screen cinema available for four years. Contrasted with the big budget Bridge on the River Kwai (released within months of this film) it's stark black and white photography makes it look almost like a B-picture from the outside. However Kubrick's seemingly behind the times visual choices seem to fit the picture so much better in retrospect. For starters black and white film and cameras allowed for a much greater and sharper depth of field. Kubrick was all in favor of showing every square inch of the frame. His camera is free to roam (something that was considerably more difficult with big bulky Technicolor equipped cameras. The violence of the film could be undercut with black and white stock allowing the picture to get away with more violence and blood by not being in bright red vivid Technicolor. With this choice it easily puts Kubrick's film in a category with classic WWI war pictures like All Quiet on the Western Front, Pabst's Westfront 1918, or Gance's J'Accuse. The fact that the entire war was essentially based on misguided national pride and ill advised machismo makes the story here all the more palpable. The entire conflict could be considered "unjustified" which makes the particular mission fit so perfectly with that grizzly conflict.

Kubrick has drawn a number of comparisons with his style to Max Ophuls whose ever roaming camera and depth staging certainly seem to be lingering influences over this picture. One scene in particular involving Broulard at a party in the chateau/command seems directly taken from any number of Ophuls' films. Ophuls loved balls and his tracking camera was perfectly suited to an opulent waltz, and I wonder how much of an homage this particular sequence was. Thematically it helps to show how out of touch Broulard is. He is entertaining guests while three random soldiers are condemned to be shot by a firing squad for cowardice. His General doesn't miss a meal, doesn't bat an eyelash, and never seems to drop his aristocratic facade that makes him so deplorable behind his devilish grin and his apparent but deceptive sympathy he offers at various points of the film. When confronted with the news that Mireau ordered his own men to be fired upon during the battle, he simply responds that he has to return to his guests. His detachment is legendary and infuriating and you realize that no matter how "just" these men will be executed as a "morale booster" for the remaining soldiers. It's sickening and you wonder how much he believes his own words. This war is ugly business and perhaps the only method of coping with it is to have a supreme detachment to humanity the way Broulard does. After all in war the price of human life is negligible.

The film doesn't offer any satisfying answers. The crisis is not averted, the war goes on, and we're left to believe that the eternal tug-of-war between the two fronts will continue much as it had the previous two years. History tells us who eventually won the war, but in Kubrick's world there really is no winner. Dax figuratively spits in Broulard's face when he is offered command of the regiment. It isn't the promotion that he resists, but the accusation that he somehow engineered the removal of Mireau all along as an act of ambition rather than justice. Broulard miscalculates and assumes Dax is of the same breed he and Mireau are not realizing that Dax unlike virtually every other officer in the film has some sense of honor and justice, not coincidentally he was a damn good defense lawyer as a civilian. There is some sense of justice in the film at times though. Mireau is left to answer for his actions, the officer who selected his enemy to be tried for treason is given the unpleasant task of being in charge of the firing squad. In a final touch of humanism Kubrick ends with a slightly sentimental scene featuring a tavern of French soldiers humming along to a German song*. The idiocy and folly of war have rarely been so accurately displayed in cinema, yet another reason why Kubrick would go from promising young director to the greatest of all time.

*As a side note that woman singing was Christiane Harlan (niece of the infamous German director Veit Harlan), who later wound up becoming Mrs. Kubrick.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - The Killing

Well if you thought I was going in some sort of order, think again. What better way to mess up the chronology of my Kubrick reviews than with Kubrick's least chronological film which is . . .



The Killing (1956)

Stanley Kubrick had been making films for several years prior to The Killing, but for many this is considered his first real film. The first one with some studio backing, the first perfectly realized work, and the first film of his to fit in his filmography as a Kubrickian work of art. Still amongst his future films, this was the most modest and low-key among his pictures. The one that took the shortest to film, find, realize, and eventually to catch on. The film wasn't a tremendous success, but it did help set up his next picture deal with MGM for Paths of Glory. Over the years though, The Killing has been elevated as one of the best caper films ever made and the first sign that Stanley Kubrick was an auteur for the ages.

The style of the film fits into the somewhat then outdated noir. The nature of the story lends itself to other film noirs, most notably John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (also starring Sterling Hayden). The use of a narrator was long a convention of noir, but here it is used more like the pseudo-documentary voice over personified in Henry Hathaway's films. The narrator in this story is not a character, but a resilient commentator on the facts of it all. The voice over comes across as a police inspector reading a report to a commissioner. Everything is to the minute, and it is removed of any frills. Unlike Hathaway's films, and other pictures using this type of omniscient narrator, this isn't just used to set up the story. Up until the last 10 minutes of the film the all present "voice of god" is being used, and to great effect. This isn't a film that tinkers with a style then abandons it as things progress. This film is realized from beginning to end, and in more ways than one it was a radical departure from most films of the genre and time.

The revolutionary narrative structure wasn't completely Kubrick's idea. He and producer Jim Harris were particularly impressed with Lionel White's comparatively unknown Clean Break, and its handling of time was the major appeal to the duo for making the film. The book sets up the structure, and it was simply Kubrick's task to transfer it to the screen. Like usual he handled screenwriting chores, but a great majority of the dialogue was written by Jim Thompson. Thompson as well as Kubrick avoid using too many noir clichés, the dialogue seems natural and normal, far from the stylized double talk associated with other pictures in the genre. The film has a gritty appeal to it, that makes it much more potent than the typical noir film. For starters the exteriors of this film mix a lot of stock footage, used extensively in the racing scenes. For the indoor sets, Kubrick makes all his spaces small. Rather than position a camera dead center, Kubrick uses his camera to wander all over the rooms, exploring all their angles and letting us know what type of cramped atmosphere his characters live in. Since this film was a studio production, it had to adhere to union rules, which meant for the first time Kubrick wasn't able to shoot his own film. The well respected Lucien Ballard shot the film, but got into extensive disagreements with Kubrick when he refused to shoot the planned tracking shots with a 25 mm lens. Kubrick not only shot his previous films, but before that had a career as a photographer, so he knew what could be done with a camera, and eventually he won out. The result are some jarring images, that give the film its own original look. The wide angle lens keeps everything in focus, and the carefully wandering camera establishes the predominant visual style that would inhabit nearly all of Kubrick's future films.

Adding to the realism is a preference for natural light. Much of the apartment scenes are dark and shot with only one source of light. In one memorable encounter between George (Elisha Cook) and his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) they have a fight with only a lamp lighting their faces from directly under them. The photographic effect is similar to the one of the illuminating mystery contents of the suitcase in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Natural light was used to great extent in future Kubrick films as well, most notoriously Barry Lyndon (1975). Here, along with the stock footage, narrator, and camera work, it helps add to an observatory feel to the film. Even the music helps to add some sense of realism. Scenes shot in apartments have a jazz score that sounds as if its coming from a radio, whereas the scenes outside and at the racetrack have more of a professional movie score tone to them. The contrast in music is a vital component to the feel of the picture.

The structure of the film is nothing new to modern audiences who have generally grown accustomed to seeing scenes from different characters points of view, but watching The Killing you get a different sense of things. Not a lot does repeat, and the story does have a fairly linear progression. It is primarily through sound that the elliptical nature hits us. We hear about the horse being shot over a radio, after we have witnessed Nikki (Tim Carey) shoot it. One line of dialogue is repeated when Kola (Maurice Oboukhoff) is about to start his distracting fight. We witness the fight in detail before we see where Johnny (Sterling Hayden) disappears to. When we hear the line repeat from Johnny's point of view we almost anticipate a second round. Kola's fight is one of the most entertaining scenes in the movie, and involves him having his shirt ripped off and a large display of wrestling moves. Oboukhoff was a non-professional actor that Kubrick met while playing chess. He is absolutely perfect for this role though and it winds up being one of the films many inspired pieces of casting. In fact everyone in the film is perfect in their roles, and perhaps the only downside is that some characters, particularly Fay (Coleen Gray) aren't on screen enough.

Overshadowing Jonny and Fay, are George and Sherry. Kubrick is much better at showing a couple at odds than one in love, and its no surprise that he focuses his attention on these two very mismatched partners. Marie Windsor was a go-to girl for B-movies and film noir roles, and she is perfect here. From the moment we meet her we're convinced she's unfaithful, uncaring, and that she'll be the downfall of at least George. Their relationship is in shambles and its summed up when he asks for dinner.

"There's steak, asparagus, potatoes" - Sherry
"Well I don't smell anything" - George
"That's because you haven't gone far enough. They're down at the grocery store" - Sherry

With a woman like that, who doesn't work, won't cook, and doesn't look like she's ready or willing to have kids, you can't help but wonder why in hell's name they're together. George even asks her why she married him, and there is no answer. She found a dope, but he wasn't even wealthy. The love is all on George's side, and Elisha Cook is so damn good at being pathetic that we're instantly on his side although we can't help wanting to smack some damn sense into the poor bastard. His revenge against his double-crossing wife though remains possibly the films most rewarding moment.

Although certain censorship rules prevented anyone being shot and dying in the same shot, Kubrick's film is decidedly more graphic than most. For starters there's actually blood, and quite a bit of it. We don't see everyone get shot, but in a great subjective POV shot of George we see the pile of bodies as he leaves the apartment. When we see George his face is covered in blood and we sense he only has enough strength left over to get home and get even. In a wonderful bit of irony, Sherry says "It's not fair" as she drops to the ground. Even in death she can't realize what a lecherous tramp she is.

I don't want to talk about the ending for those who haven't seen it, but damn it if it isn't one of the funniest moments in Kubrick history. Everyone involved is dead, Nikki was shot by the black security guard, everyone else dies during the double-cross, and Kola was already paid. We're lead to believe Johnny has a clean slate, but again Hollywood ethics make us think he can't quite get away with it. When we hear the speech being made about checking the bag and not being able to take it on the plane, Kubrick is simply buying time. We know something is brewing. We're also shown a rather annoying old woman with a wimpy little poodle and at first we think this is just a grotesque Kubrick back character. Yet knowing Kubrick nothing is "just there", so we start doing the math. When Johnny agrees to have the suitcase taken away, we know that this set up will pay off. Then outside the dog runs away, the baggage driver swerves, and of all the suitcases, Johnny's (which he double checked the locks when he packed it) is the only one that falls and opens. In the blink of an eye all the money seems to evaporate. Looking at Hayden's face afterwards we see a comical look of absolute devastation. When the guards come to apprehend him we know he doesn't care, he lost and we can't help chuckle that after all that planning and meticulous detail, this is how it all goes to hell. I could probably watch that last scene over and over again and never get tired of it, but then again I say that about nearly all of Kubrick's films. A first rate work from a director who would spend the next several decades building a reputation as the greatest filmmaker of all time.