Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Chinese Ghost/Comedy/Action/Fantasy "Story"

I must admit I have a prejudice against films from China. I do not like many of them, and even the good ones often have things that bother me. Of course there are exceptions. I am very impressed by the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai. Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep is one of the best films I have ever seen and one of The Book's most egregious oversights. And of course I enjoy a few of the Hong Kong kung fu films despite their silliness. However, for the most parts, there are a lot of tropes of Chinese films that I dislike. There is usually a very simple good/evil divide. The acting is over the top (almost like American silent film acting but with sound). The comedy to me is sophomoric and falls flat. Worst of all, it can be hard to get a version of Chinese films with decent, or even coherent and accurate, subtitles. Just generally, most do not seem like well put together films by American standards, or even the standards of neighboring countries like Japan. I am sorry to say that many of these tropes are in the film A Chinese Ghost Story, and they hurt my enjoyment of the film. However, there was much to enjoy about the film as well, which evened things out a bit.

The story is a simple one. A young tax collector (Leslie Cheung), naive and cowardly, is in a rural town and has to sleep in a haunted temple. He falls in love with a young girl (Joey Wong), but she is a ghost (unbeknownst to him) and tries to suck out his soul to give to her master. However, because he is good and charming, she falls in love with him, but of course cannot be with him due to her ghostly servitude. The two have romantic scenes and misunderstanding, but once all of the facts come out,the young man vows to help free her from her servitude and help her get reincarnated, enlisting the help of a Taoist monk/ghostbuster (Wu Ma) along the way. The story and script are simplistic and silly, and mostly not in a charming sort of way. The acting, as I have said, is over the top, though Wong gives us some tender moments and Ma can be a little fun. Most of the jokes are painful (especially the physical comedy which includes a reaction shot of Cheung seeing Ma take a piss) and often nonsensical. Everything is of course very formulaic. However, there are some things to like about the film.

First and foremost, it is a visually enchanting movie. I would not go so far as to say it is stunning, but it is always very inventive and imaginative. The sets are, for the most part, either very beautiful or quite creepy, and the filmmakers use their small budget (compared to American films) very well to set the mood with lighting, smoke machines, and other techniques. There are also quite a few impressive, if sometimes cheesy, special effects. Rabid wolves, zombies, killer trees, witches with giant tongues that fill whole buildings, and dark knights on horseback are just a few of the creatures we see in the film. In this day and age especially, it is great to see the use of practical effects rather than CGI or digital effects used so well in a film, and this adds a lot of enjoyment to the experience of watching it and reminds me of the films of Sam Raimi. There are also great effects for when magic is used, like fireballs or mystical spells. Finally, the fight choreography and scenes of the ghosts flying (as well as the costume designs) are superb, and add some fast paced excitement and wonder to the film watching experience. Visually, this movie is unique and quite a treat to behold, especially when the lead actress flies about or the undead come out to attack.

'Cus this is Thriiiiiiiiilllllllerrrrrrrrr! Chinese Thriller tonight!

Speaking of being fun to watch, this film provides quite a bit of eye candy for the hetero males and lesbians in the audience. Wong is absolutely gorgeous, from the way she dresses to her facial expressions to her giddy schoolgirl laughter to her sensuous body language. The sexual scene, which get more graphic than I expected, really are not tedious to watch because of her beauty. What's more, if you have any kind of foot fetish or just a "thing" for feet (which the Chinese certainly do) then this is the movie for you. The camera lovingly focuses on Wong's pretty little feet and sexy ankle bracelet (which actually summons her ghostly matriarch) multiple times in the film. I got quite a bit of enjoyment out of this myself I must admit, and it helped turn the experience of watching the film around to a positive for me. I do not usually like gratuitous sexuality in films purely for titillation's sake, but the sexual scenes in this film are just right, not too long and sexy enough to add to the film. This is definitely a leg man's movie.

"Oh my, is that ectoplasm running down your leg, or are you just happy to see me?"

Another reason why the sexy scenes work is also a reason why the film as a whole remains watchable: the romance is actually believable and engaging. No matter how great a film's visuals are, if the plot fails on all fronts it is doomed. This film certainly fails on many fronts. Its comedy is almost entirely tedious, it isn't scary, and it is entirely predictable (the only refreshing plot point is that unlike American films it does not feel the need to have an entirely happy ending where the guy gets the girl). However, the romance is actually a treat. We can believe that this ghost girl would fall for this bumbling guy because of his kindness and brave actions to help her. Though the romance is also predictable, it is a treat to see her watch him from afar, giggling at his buffoonery, falling deeper in love. We believe his devotion to her and cheer when he bravely rescues her, or when she rescues him. There is tension when he comes to visit his lover and must hide in plain sight from the other ghosts, who he thinks are her conservative family members. This belief in the romance causes us to like the two characters much more than their paper-thin  and poorly written characterizations or their overacting might otherwise allow us, and it makes their scenes of love and sex more enjoyable as opposed to tedious. In fact, the scene where he has to hide from the ghosts gives the film it's most beautiful, sensual and enduring image, when Wong submerges her head into her bath where Cheung is hiding to fill his lungs with air by giving him their first passionate kiss (and also a sexy and funny moment where she is forced to get into the tub naked with Cheung still submerged in order to hide him, giving him a sneak peak at her goods).

Clearly he's not the only one who gets wet in this scene!

Wu Ma, perhaps the most veteran and well known actor (in China anyway) in this film gives us a fun performance as the Taoist monk. His fight scenes can get quite impressive, and they add a lot for the guys watching the film who might not be so into the romance. He also gives us what I consider to be the only genuinely funny part of the movie. Not joke: out of nowhere in the middle of the film, even though no other person had sung at any point is this film and there was only one song playing during a sex scene before, we suddenly get a scene of Ma singing about Taoist principles while doing what is essentially a swordfighting breakdance. What insane mind thought of that shit! On to of that, his use of mag gives us some of the more interesting visuals of the film.

These new Menthol cigarettes are extra, EXTRA cool.

Sadly, though the film has great visuals, the same cannot be said for its audio. Besides that one funny song/breakdance, the soundtrack mostly sucks. There is one kind of nice song during a romantic scene, but though the song is nice it kind of gives the scene a soap opera feel to it (a vibe which the lighting was already giving off far too often). Other than that the soundtrack just sucked and really didn't add anything to the film

I might have enjoyed the film more is she had stuck that tongue in my ears during this film to block out the sound, or if she had stuck it a few other places.... wait, no, she can expand that thing to destroy whole houses, that shit is dangerous!

All in all, while this film had a lot going for it visually, sexually and romantically, the inept and predictable script, over the top acting, and bad soundtrack robbed this film of much of the enjoyment its fantasy and whimsy could have brought. For Chinese viewers who are used to and expect these kind of tropes I can see why it was such a big hit. From an American perspective, however, it just appears to amateurish to often to be a true delight. I can only give this film a 6/10, Good rating despite its high points.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bring Me A Plate of Fettucini Alfredo...Or Something Like That, I'm Too Drunk to Remember

Sam Peckinpah is known for his violent films. In a spoof of him on the show Monty Python's Flying Circus, Eric Idle claims that he is making a new film called Buckets of Blood Pouring Over People's Heads. Frankly such an idea is not far off from something Peckinpah would make. Having already seen the extended (read the director's originally envisioned and thus far superior) version of the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and loved it (especially the score from my favorite musician Bob Dylan, who also puts in a performance in the film) I was excited for this one. And I must say that, for the most part, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia met all of my expectations and exceeded them. The person who reviewed this film for The Book claims that this film "divides audiences into those who rate it a five-star classic and those who see it as a one-star dog." Though I would only give it four stars, I am certainly in the former category.

The first thing one notices about the film is that the production values have significantly decreased since his last film. Because Pat Garrett was a commercial failure, this film only got 1/3 of that film's budget, which was already low. This does come out as a negative at different parts of the film. The sound quality is not perfect and he obviously could not afford a huge name like Dylan to do the score to this film. Some scenes clearly show the strains of the low budget. In the graveyard scene it is clear in further away shots that there is really only a pile of empty clothes in the coffin, and I'm pretty sure they were trying to do a day-for-night shot in those scenes (never a good idea). The film also has a bit of an over reliance on slow motion.

Of course I obviously loved the film in spite of these problems or I would not have given it such praise earlier. There is much to be loved about this 70s exploitation film. First off, the acting and the characters are superb. To start off with we have our main protagonist. No, it is not Alfredo Garcia, nor is it the man who kills him. The great plot point of the film is that Garcia is already dead, and our main character is only searching for his grave site to find his head in order to get a reward (though the two have an interesting tangential relationship). Our main character is Bennie, a sleazy piano player pretending to be a tough guy. He can't pass up the chance to get $10,000 seemingly so easily. However, he finds as the film goes on that his path is not so easy, and ironically, though he does not have to actually kill Garcia to get his head, he ends up having to kill quite a few other people to complete his quest, which moves from a quest for money to a quest for understanding in the face of senseless death to a quest for vengeance. Throughout the film the actor Warren Oates does a phenomenal job portraying Oates weaknesses and yet also his determination, and as the shit starts piling up he does a wonderful job portraying the mental strain Bennie is going through. This is really what sets the film apart from other 70s exploitation schlock, the acting is fantastic and deep from nearly all involved, especially with Oates. Plus he does great at the kick-ass violence we've come to expect from this genre and director.

Since they got Bob Dylan to do the score for the last film, Oates should have just called up his buddy Hall and the two of them could have done the score. Introducing his whore girlfriend with "Maneater" playing in the background would have been awesome!

Isela Vega also gives a great performance as Bennie's whore girlfriend Elita. Besides giving us some eye candy and some truly emotional love scenes between our leads, her character is critical to the plot in many ways. Firstly, she sets up a link between our main character and the object of his quest Garcia. She has not seen Bennie in 3 days because she has been sleeping with Garcia. This allows her to take Bennie to his destination, as well as creates an emotional connection between Bennie and this man he has never even met. Secondly, she gives Bennie a purpose to his quest beyond money: he wants to use the cash to help the two of them escape this horrid life so they can get married. This allows us to sympathize much more with our main character. Finally, Elita function's as Bennie's moral and mental rock. She tries to dissuade him from the quest for moral reasons, and the tragedies that befall them foreshadow the horrors that are to come. When Elita is killed, Bennie loses his mental and moral ties to this world, we see him slowly unravel, and he moves off his quest for money into a quest to comprehend why anyone would want Garcia's head, how his head could possibly be worth the life of his beloved, and eventually into a simple quest for revenge. 
 Wow, two characters are having a peaceful moment in a Peckinpah film. You know that's not gonna last.
This kind of intricate plotting really shows why Peckinpah was a cut above the rest. Unfortunately, this character is also involved in one of the most dated and controversial scenes in the movie. So the two lovebirds are having a picnic when two scruffy White guys on motorcycles show up. I immediately think, "Oh, great, they're going to rape her," and of course I am proven right almost immediately. Kris Kristofferson, who played the lead role of Billy in Peckinpah's last film is now consigned to a minor role with very few lines as the biker who rapes her. However, after stripping her and hitting her, he seems to have a moment of weakness and goes off to sulk under a rock. Touched by his show of vulnerability, she goes to him to comfort him and immediately starts to passionately and willingly make out with him before Benny can come and shoot him. The idea that a woman would act this way after she was about to be raped towards her assailant is ridiculous and completely sexist, though unfortunately not atypical of films from this time or genre (nor of Westerns on this time, since Clint Eastwood could pretty much rape any woman in a film and they would apparently like it). This is a big fault of the film, though typical of Peckinpah's obsession with sex and violence.

So, why does anyone want Garcia's head? Well, apparently, before he kicked the bucket, Garcia worked for a man known only as El Jefe (played menacingly by Emilio Fernandez). He was all set to be the bosses heir when it becomes clear that he has made the fatal mistake of knocking up the boss' daughter (don't they always?). El Jefe tortures his daughter in from of her mother to get her to talk (setting the tone of the film in a shocking but well-done way), then offers $1 million for Garcia's head. Clearly this guy doesn't fuck around, and is only interested in his image, viewing his daughter as property that has been violated and his trust betrayed by someone he considered a son. In fact in a darkly hilarious ironic twist, Bennie shows up with the head of Garcia the moment his child has just been baptized, and the delighted grandfather plays with his grandson while his daughter looks on in horror at the head of her lover. In perhaps the best part of the movie, Bennie shoots EL Jefe's guards to avenge his beloved Elita, and while he has his gun pointed at El Jefe, his daughter looks him right in the eye and says, "Kill him." Bennie does, and El Jefe's wife smiles as he makes his getaway.

Weren't expecting that one were ya buddy? Who's El Jefe now!

Even the more stereotypical roles in the film are delightful and well done. Benny is first hired by two White guys in business attire who are complete fish out of water in the slums of Mexico. For one thing, they are more psychotic and unpredictable about their violence than the Mexican characters. A scene where a whore rubs her hand sexily across one of their thighs and the guy just decks her by slamming his elbow in her face comes right out of nowhere and foreshadows the unexpected violence that is to come. When they meet Bennie on the road after he has been accosted by Garcia's family, they pull out automatic weapons and start blasting everything in sight. They certainly add a lot of fun to the film.

Whether they be bikers, mobster, businessmen, or cops, White guys in exploitation films are always hilariously huge assholes.

Beyond what I have already mentioned there are many other incredibly smart touches that raise this film above other exploitation films of this time. As Bennie goes mad he starts talking to and berating Garcia's head. In a great scene he asks the head, "why does everybody want you, what makes you so valuable? Are you full of silver and gems..." and them he flips over the head in a bag to reveal it is covered in flies, beautifully done. On top of that, the low budget of the film gives it a wonderfully earthy and gritty sort of feel. Bennie becomes increasingly dirty physically and his soul becomes besmirched with his evil deeds. You can really feel the heat and smell the sweat and rotting flesh as the car drives on in the Mexican heat. The sex is very earthy too. The 60s and 70s were a time when men and women alike could be portrayed totally naturally and still be seen as sexy, after the time of the picture-perfect starlets of the 30s-50s but before the airbrushed and digitally enhanced "perfection" of today's actresses. Also, the director's own alcohol problems show through in the fact that everyone is drinking constantly, even while driving. This all gives the film a natural feel that gives the plot greater depth and makes the violence, sexual or otherwise, that much more shocking. Today you can fill a screen with digital gore, but often it is nowhere near as shocking as simple cheap practical effects in a realistic setting. All in all this film delivers all of the violence and sex I came to expect with quite a bit of artistry, great acting and intricate plot that I did not expect. I give this film an 8/10 Amazing grade.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ran, Don't Walk to See This Film

People have wrote books and made films about the incredible Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, my personal favorite director, considered by many to be one of the greatest film directors of all time. I don't want to take too much time talking about Kurosawa's career in general, but I would like to quote Francis Ford Coppola who I think said it best when summing up why Kurosawa is so respected. "One thing that distinguishes [him] is that he didn't make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces." He is certainly right in that regard. I have seen 15 films by Kurosawa and my opinions of them have ranged from Amazed to "This is the greatest film I have ever seen in my life." His films had direct influences on directors like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman and many more. He has 6 films in The Book (not enough, in my opinion), and so many of his films are well regarded and considered influential to this day. However, among his impressive cannon, there are 4 films which are not only considered masterpieces, but are regarded as competing for the title of Kurosawa's best film, and thus potentially for the title of Best Film of All Time. There is his breakthrough film for the Western world Rashomon (1950). There was his contemporary humanist masterpiece Ikiru (1952). There is his samurai epic Seven Samurai (1954, and this film and Ikiru are tied for my pick as best film of all time). Finally, decades later, there is this epic Shakespeare inspired war film Ran (1985).

In making this films, Kurosawa was inspired by two main sources, William Shakespeare's King Lear and the ancient Japanese story of the Three Arrows. However, in typical Kurosawa fashion, he merely uses these sources as a jumping off point, radically changing the stories and settings to fit his personal vision. Taking the story of a king who wants to hand power to his three children, two of whom are false and bad children, and what tragedies occur because of his actions, he moves the story to Japan, makes it about a warlord and changes the daughters to sons. He references the Three Arrows story only to prove that it is false: you can, in fact, destroy three arrows that are bundled together. Most importantly, unlike Shakespeare, his gives the Great Lord of his story a history, so that rather than being a victim of fate and two unfaithful children, he is a man who has earned his fate through his violent actions, which made his children violent backstabbers and turned everyone around him (nearly) into power-and-revenge-seeking monsters.

No wonder your kids hate you, you make them color coordinate their outfits!

While this film covers many themes (fate, violence, the gods' role in human events, nihilism, death, revenge, loyalty, sanity/reality, etc.) the main story follows one Lord Hidetora, a man who spilled blood and committed countless atrocities all his life trying to gain complete control of the lands around him. Now, at age 75, at the height of his power, he wants to pass power to his sons, so that he can live his remaining life in peace. However, as his son Saburo and vassal Tango try to show him, he has lived in and perpetuated a world of violence and betrayal, and cannot expect his sons to be better than him or to live in peace after all the violence he perpetrated. However, being proud, he bans his youngest son and loyal vassal simply for telling the truth. This will quickly lead him down the path of destruction as his greedy, power-hungry sons, his psychotic revenge-minded daughter-in-law and disloyal advisers turn on him and completely, utterly destroy him.

This is Hidetora's "Before" picture. Wait until you see what he looks like only a few days later.

Kurosawa had ideas for this film long before it was made, and he originally wrote the role of Hidetora for actor Toshiro Mifune, and it shows. By the time it was made it was too late to have Kurosawa regulars like Mifune or Takashi Shimura in it. However, the performance in this film, far from being lacking, are some of the best in film history. Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora, inspired by Noh acting, does an absolutely incredible job. At the start of the film, he is so fierce and intimidating. As the horrors that he has unleashed through his pride bear down on him, his strength breaks down (the scene in which he moves from anger at his second son's rejection into stumbling due to his shock and pain is great). Finally, he breaks down into madness, perfectly played every time. His scenes as a mad man could so easily have been overacted and silly. Instead they are haunting, seeing how far this man has fallen is truly a spirit-shaking experience. And why wouldn't he fall into madness? His own sons not only try to strip him of every privilege or sense of pride that he has, his advisers betray him and both his sons set fire to his castle, slaughtering all his entourage, including his concubines!

I feel bad for him, son. He's got 99 problems. But at least now his bitches ain't one.

This leads to the greatest scene in the film, the one of epic scale that made this film the most expensive Japanese production up to that point (along with the climactic battle at the end). The combined forces of his two sons assault the few men he has in his castle, trying to kill him (and an adviser of his second son kills his first son so he can seize power). What is so great is that instead of filling the soundtrack with sound of battle, the sound almost completely cuts out for this, with the hauntingly minimalist score by Toru Takemitsu gets brought to the foreground. At the end of all the horror, the stunned Hidetora tries to commit Seppuku, but cannot, so far has he fallen into madness. In a fantastic shot, he slowly descends the stone staircase of his burning castle, both armies making way for this madman so that he may wander the plains aimlessly. His son even feels regret at seeing his father fallen so far and lets him leave, but he has chosen his path and moves to solidify power. The only reason Hidetora even survives or achieve moments of clarity is because the three people still loyal to him (Saburo, Tango, and his Fool Kyoami) try to help him.

Hey, don't worry about your castle Hisetora. Real Estate is a buyer's market right now! Castles like that have gone down from 2 million yen to only about 700,000!

But Hidetora is no innocent man undeserving of his fate. We learn throughout this film the horrible things he has done. He speaks to the wife of his second son, Lady Sue, a devout Buddhist who acts as a reminder of his evil past. He cannot bear to see Sue smile despite the fact that he always like to go see her. This is because he betrayed her parents, murdered them, and burned down their castle in order to seize power. The kindly Sue, devout as she is, cannot bring herself to hate him, despite his evil deeds. Not so for her brother, who he blinded as a young boy, and now lives as a blind hermit on the plains. When the now mad and fallen Hidetora is taken to his house for help, their reunion is far from welcoming. Greatest of all however in terms of acting is the performance of Mieko Harade, who plays Lady Kaede, wife of his eldest son, who has backstory similar to Lady Sue. Her outlook could not be more different from hers however. She has devoted her entire life's purpose to getting revenge on Hidetora and his house, and when he cedes power to her husband, she sees her opportunity. She prods her husband into demanding more and more power from his father as a sign of his power, leading him to be forced out of the house and unwolcome at his other son's home. When her husband is slain, she nearly murders his brother. Instead, she seduces him, conquering his mind and body so fully that he is willing to behead his current wife (Lady Sue) for her. He even leads his men to a ruinous attack on their neighbors at her prodding. Her performance is stunning, perhaps the best I have ever seen by an actress. She slinks across the screen like a snake, her ever move and word is filled with either quiet fury or psychotic rage. Her character is similar to the wife in Kurosawa's earlier film Throne of Blood, also based on a Shakespeare play. However, while that character wanted personal power, this woman only wants revenge. Also, her character adds a level of sensuality and actual physical threat unseen in the other character. One of the films best scenes is when Kaede confronts the second son, pulls out a blade and slices his throat forcing him to admit his guilt in killing her husband, then seduces him by licking the wounds she has created and having sex with him. By the end of the scenes, she totally owns him, body and soul. The character is so devious and yet attractive, it has rarely been rivaled in film. 

That's some kinky foreplay right there.

The third masterful performance comes somewhat surprisingly from what is essentially the comic relief character of the film, Kyoami. He is based on the Fool from King Lear, but here is given a distinctly Japanese feel here. The character is played by transvestite actor Shinnosuke Inehata. He does a great job of being both funny and at times very sad. Like fools throughout history, he is the only one who can really speak the truth in ever instance, because his role as a jester allows him to do so without being shunned (though he often gets in trouble for going to far). This allows him to poke fun at all of the proud characters and point out the falsehoods of their ideals and ideas. His joking also adds nihilistic philosophical depth to many scenes, especially when he interacts with Hidetora. The scene where he puts a crown of grass and flowers at his now mad master, disgusted at his fall, is incredibly poignant. Or, for example, look at this exchange of dialogue:
Hidetora- I am lost.
Kyoami- Such is always the condition of Man.
Hidetora- I think I have been here before.
Kyoami- Man is constantly traveling the same path. If you don't like it, jump!
Hidetora- [Jumps off a cliff].
Here we have both comedy at the expense of the mad lord and philosophy. Yet other scenes, like when he almost leave Hideotra only to be drawn back at the sound of him talking in his sleep, show that he has real love and loyalty for Hidetora. This makes their scenes together emotional and always great to watch.
"What do you think that cloud looks like?"

At the end of the story nearly everyone dies. This is Kurosawa's message: the gods weep at the horrors we commit, they cannot help us, we are alone and lost in this cruel word. Several scenes present this message, but the two best are as follows. Firstly, at one point Kyoami states, "Man is born crying. He cries and cries, and when he has cried enough, he dies." Pretty dark huh? That's nothing. The final shot is of the blind brother of Sue (who has been murdered by Kaede at this point) stumbling towards a cliff, nearly falling, and dropping his scroll of The Buddha in the process. The point of this scene? It is Kurosawa's metaphor for humanity. We are all blind men, about to stumble off of a cliff into nothingness, waiting for someone or something that will never come, as the gods abandon us to our fate. Wow.

How great is this film? This is the kind of film Jesus would make (if he was a Japanese man in the 20th century). If Shakespeare had lived to see this film, he would have wept and thanked Kurosawa for improving upon King Lear and making something even greater from it. Few films have such high ambitions as this film and actually manage to achieve that epicness. This is a clear 10/10 Essential film.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fasten Your Seatbelts, It's Going To Be A Bumpy Review: All About Eve

In my short time writing reviews for this website I have already given 2 films a perfect 10. Seeing as the next film to be reviewed is one of Akira Kurosawa's greatest, it should be little surprise that I will give that one a ten as well. And I am going to give another tonight. That is why I love The Book. It has introduced me to so many films that I would not otherwise have watched that are some of the greatest works of art ever created. I give these films 10s not because I am easy to please, but because they do so much to please me. These films attain such perfection in their direction, stories and acting that they enrich my life in no uncertain terms. This film, All About Eve, is certainly a film which I will remember and return to with great joy all of my days.

This is one of the finest scripts ever written for a film. Dark, satirical and witty, it never makes a false move. Every line of dialog, every movement, every inflection of the voice, zings and pops with energy, intensity, and brilliance. The movie is completely full of itself. Every words spoken from long monologues to passing comments is filled with self importance, is begging us to pay close attention to how important and meaningful it all is. And yet the films works because it lives up to its pretension. We believe in the epicness of what is being said. Lives and souls are being fought for, examined, ridiculed, all through a darkly cynical eye, with moments of truth and humanity. This great film has an awful tagline, "It's all about women... and their men!," how generic. Though the film may be called All About Eve, it is really all about the theater and the world it creates. It is a world where actors and actresses are worshiped as gods and goddesses for bringing their great light and talent to the people. These demigods are propped up or torn down by directors, writers and critics, all of whom have fame, but none of whom are so loved as those on stage. For those in this business it creates a world of backstabbing and witty attacks, where the man your were having lunch with yesterday can be destroying your career the next. To stay alive in this world you must have cunning, you must build up defenses around yourself that eventually shield you from your own humanity and the love of others. Above all, to be loved and accepted, you must have talent and, perhaps, youth. Still, in spite all of this, the world of theater is a world of beauty, if only pretend beauty, where those of unique talent and personality can create things of true beauty and be rewarded, if only for a while, with the love of the people. This causes all those involved to love the theater, as seen in the scene where all the characters of note (except the maid and the fuming Margo) sit on the steps and contemplate why they love this corrupt world so.

Anyone seen and good movies lately?

Though I consider myself a film snob, I admit I have one great flaw as a film viewer: I do not often get excited over actresses in films. Oh, I have many many actors whom I love, and many performances by actresses that I love as well. But there are few actresses who really strike me, who make me think "wow I bet this movie will be great" when I hear that they are in it. Maybe the types of roles actors get appeal to me more, I don't know. What I do know is that there are maybe 3 actresses who really excite me. One is Meryl Streep, the greatest actress still out there working, if not the best of all time. Another is Audrey Hepburn, who is brilliant in everything she is in. Finally, there is Bette Davis, who plays the role of Margo Channing in this film. Her role is nothing short of brilliant. She play the role of an aging actress, filled with insecurities and world weariness, who loves her man deeply but allows her stage persona to take over her true self as a defense mechanism. I believe everything she says in the film. Her incredible strengths and her debilitating weaknesses are fully on display. Aided of course by a fantastic script rewritten specifically to fit Davis' style, her lines are perfect in the way in which they are almost never direct about how she is feeling and why, but how she wittily and acidly gets her point across by snidely venting her hatred through metaphors and veils. And of course, when she does become direct and honest, her words are all the more meaningful for it. Davis never outdid this performance (though she may have equaled it in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) because she never had a character so theatrical and yet so human and real in her frailties and needs. This is one of the finest performances by an actress ever put to film.

 "Listen Honey, don't even think about challenging me for Best Actress. I was making films when you were still a sperm swimming around in your father's scrotum!"

And then there is Anne Baxter in the title role. Can you really call what she does in this film acting? It feels so real. I believe every word she says even when I know it is a lie. When she tells her sob story I nearly sob myself. When she goes starry eyed at the thought of being of stage and applauded I feel her need to be loved. When she tries to seduce Margo's husband I am filled with hate and yet respect for her cunning. And when she is finally brought down after all her clever planning by the even more clever Addison I can feel her world crumbling, hating her and yet somehow pitying her. Of course she is aided by a great script, but the way she is able to do such a complete character change, step by step throughout the film, with each step being believable, is amazing. I have never disagreed with a review in The Book more that when it says of the film, "its only flaw is Baxter, who seems to be nothing bu pure ambition in womanly form." Fuck you, Karen Krizanovich, you know nothing about this role, how complex and changing it was, and how Baxter had the talent to meet the challenge in every step. What a year for the Academy when picking awards for actresses! Not only did this film have 2 nominations for Supporting Actress, it had both Davis and Baxter for Actress, as well as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, perhaps the greatest performance by an actress ever. And who did they give it to? Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Idiots.

"No, its not possible! How could they not give me the award! I'm a star! Nobody leaves a star! I was ready for my close-up! Oh, shit, I'm doing the wrong film..."

Though none of the deserving actresses won an Academy Award for this film (though Davis received an even more impressive acting awards at Cannes) at least the Academy honored the actors who deserved the most praise for the film. George Sanders is perfect as Addison the theater critic. He is smart, confident, in control, looking down on those around him with a cool and cynical eye, looking down upon them from on high, judging them, sometimes controlling them. Yet we can see that he loves this world he judges, he admits he could survive nowhere else, and there is an undercurrent of buried insecurity in his character. He is the first voice we hear in the film, and when he says "I am a critic, I am essential to the theater," he says it with such confidence, and yet there is a hint that, on some level, he is trying to convince himself of this fact as much as assure us. As he helps to guide the young Eve, build her career, hurt his "friends" to raise her higher, and makes sure that Eve stays his property, we see his control. Yet, when he slaps Even in a fantastic scene for laughing at him, we can see that he is as much an actor as those around him, acting cool and smart to convince himself of his own importance. His character is witty, funny, charming, sinister, and all around great.
Looks like Sanders is trying to cop a feel on Marilyn Monroe. Can you blame him?

Of course the other actors in the film are great. All of the roles by speaking characters are close to perfect. Literally, the only flaw I could find with the film is a scene where two characters are "walking down the street" clearly in front of a green screen, and I'm like, why couldn't they just film them walking down a street? Gary Merril as Margo's boyfriend, Hugh Marlowe as Llyod Richards and Gregory Ratoff as Max Fabian all turn in great performances. But at the end of the day, this is a film ruled almost exclusively by the actresses. Celeste Holm as Margo's best friend, who deliberately and yet somehow unwittingly advances the career of the conniving Eve every step of the way, even as Eve tries to steal her beloved husband, is lovely and loveable. Thelma Ritter is fantastic as the maid with attitude, and it is a shame that she does not show up in the film's second half. Hell, though she is only on screen briefly, the great and then unknown Marilyn Monroe gives a mesmerizing performance as the lightheaded but ladder climbing young actress under the wing of Addison. Every performance in this film is near flawless, a delight to watch.

"I may not be as pretty as you youngins, but I got one 'ting the audience loves: sass!"

I have read that many criticize the message of this films as being highly anti-feminist. The strong and independent Eve is seen as pure evil (Hell, she's named after the woman who committed the first sin!) and whenever Margo tries to be independent she is viewed as being hysterical. It is only when she submits to her man, putting aside her career for a marriage, that she becomes truly happy, a "real woman." I understand and see these arguments, yet I do not fully agree. Anyone could agree that Eve goes to far to achieve success, woman or not. Margo is talented and independent, and this is not entirely viewed as wrong. Yes, she is only truly happy when she embraces her relationship as her main goal and not her career. But isn't that the way of all people, man or woman? Can a career really replace the joy of a loving relationship? Lloyd the write is seen as becoming more and more miserable when he devotes himself to the mad passion of making the perfect play at the expense of his relationship to his wife. Bill is equally devoted to Margo as she is to him. And the two characters who devote themselves totally to their craft at the expense of real love, Addison and Eve, are both miserable in reality at the end. To me, the message of the film is that the theater has rewards for those willing to sacrifice, but when the curtain goes down, you are a person and not an actress or writer or what have you, and you have to find lasting happiness in the things that make everyone happy. Bill says to Addison that he doesn't believe those in theater are truly different at their core from other people, and I think we are meant to see him as being right.
I am not one to be swept up in this idea of the "Golden Age of Hollywood," that Hollywood was only truly glamorous, great and at their best in the late 30s, 40s, and early 50s. In fact, I thing the 70s are the best decade in film personally. However, this film makes me feel that grand illusion of glamorous Hollywood every second it is on. The actors and actresses are beautiful, classy, witty, wonderful. The script sings, the actors and actresses shine, the sets dazzle. This is a beloved film for a reason. I give it a perfect 10/10, Essential.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

One Swede Ride: Musings on The Phantom Carriage (Korkarlen)

Let me get one thing out of the way right from the start. I am giving this film a higher grade than my pure enjoyment of it might lead me to give it because I was unable to watch it under optimal conditions. Not having access to a DVD or online copy of the film, I was forced to watch it on YouTube. More than that, the only visually correct form I could find was not translated into English. I had to ignore the subtitles and simply read a synopsis of the film so I understood what was going on. Furthermore, this version of the film had a score that, while creepy and appropriate, was not the original score of the film. I feel confident that if I had not faced all of these difficulties and distractions I would have enjoyed the film more, so I am grading it on a curve, so to speak.

This is not the first film in which I have seen the great Victor Sjostrom. It is the first film that he directed and wrote which I have seen, but I saw him act in the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries. His performance in that film at the age of 78, of an old professor reminiscing about his past and struggling with his relationship with his son, daughter-in-law, and how he is partly responsible for their misfortunes, was heartwarming, powerful, and bittersweet, one of the finest acting performances I have had the pleasure to see. He certainly does not disappoint in this film, The Phantom Carriage, either. This film was a major influence on Bergman, one of my favorite directors, and the main reason he asked Sjostrom to be in his film. Seeing this film 80 years after its initial release, I can see how it could be a huge influence on a young man with an interest in film.

If a modern film watcher is going to watch a silent movie, he/she had better have an appreciation of one of two things: slapstick comedy and/or melodrama. This film certainly serves up a great deal of the latter. The film focuses on the life of one David Holm, played by Sjostrom himself. Holm is a violent, hateful drunk. He has caused great pain for two women we learn. One, Sister Edit of the Red Cross (Astrid Holm) is dying and wants to see Holm before she dies, because she hope her prayers that he might turn his life around were answered (so far, they haven't been). The other is his own wife (Hilda Borgstom) who is filled with misery because of his treatment of her and their children. The drunken Holm is so heartless that even when a friend comes to him and tells him of the dying woman's request, he will not come. He would much rather spend his time drinking and playing cards with his friends.

"Hey buddy, you're just in time! We were just about to start a game of Strip Poker. Care to join?"
Holm will soon change his tune, however. You see, it is New Years Eve, and Holm recounts to his drinking buddies an old folk tale his friend George once told him. Supposedly, at the end of the year, if you are the last person on Earth to die, you must spend the next year of your life working as Death incarnate, traveling the world in a ghostly carriage taking the dead into the next world. A big coincidence is that this same friend, George, happened to die right before the stroke of midnight last New Years Eve. Another big coincidence is that, when his friends try to force him to go see the dying Sister Edit, one of them accidentally kills Holm right before midnight. And, wouldn't you know it, Death (aka George) shows up to reap the soul of his former friend, now his replacement.

Fun Fact: He has a bumper sticker in back that reads, "My Other Carriage is Corporeal."
George is shocked to find that his old friend Holm will be his replacement, and is saddened at the state of his life. He himself is filled with regret that the two of them wasted their lives drinking. George spends the whole night showing Holm how his life has gone horribly wrong, and how he has hurt many people, even those close to him, through his drinking and self loathing which turns into hatred of everything. We see how when Edit tried to help him get up from rock bottom he laughed at her, wanting to act as if he needed no one's help. We see how in his drunkenness he hurts his wife and his children. In a fantastic use of editing, we see how his life was turned around by drinking. One moment we see Holm playing with his children and having a picnic with his wife, clearly loving life. The next minute, in the same spot, we see a flashforward of his sitting on the same ground, but now with alcohol in his hand, his clothes shabby, drinking it up with other worthless bums.
"You're dead to me David! Well, technically, you're dead to everyone now..."

While this film can seem a little overlong at times, it is filled with scenes such as this which show true brilliance and still have the power to touch audiences. The scenes of the Phantom Carriage itself, crossing mountains, plains and even the mighty ocean itself to reap immortal souls, whether they be suicides in studies or drownings at the bottom of a raging sea, are all chillingly fantastic. Another great edit occurs when we see Holm first refuse to go see Sister Edit, and then we cut to Edit jumping up in bed and clutching her chest as though wounded. Most famous of all, and most terrifying, is the scene in which a drunken Holm is locked away in the kitchen by his wife, who is attempting to protect the children from his tuberculosis, and Holm decides to use and axe to chop his way through the door. This chilling scene was directly parodies in my favorite horror film of all time, The Shining.

"I simply must stop locking myself out of the house. Or at least figure a way of getting inside that is less costly than chopping down the door. I mean it's not as if doors simply grown on trees! Well, I guess since they're made of wood they technically do, but you get my point."

Another thing which makes this film great is the acting. Sjostrom is fantastic at playing both the violence, drunken, uncaring version of Holm, as well as expressing believable horror as he sees the damage he has done, even driving his wife to try and kill herself and their children. Tore Svennberg as George is haunted, intimidating, and yet somehow still very human. However, it is Borgstrom (a long time Sjostrom collaborator) who steals the show as the pained and miserable Mrs. Holm. The scene in which she is brought before Edit, who tried to get her back with David in order to help him find redemption, only to have his remain remain a drunken brute, is marvelous. She leans over the dying girl with a look of anger, of hatred. She leans down, her hands outstretched and curled like claws, seeming to want to strangle the woman who brought this monster back into her life when she though she had escaped him. However, when Edit, the pure angel, rises and kisses her saying, "Poor Mrs. Holm," she breaks down and weeps. The scene in which she first sees David again, the pain and disbelief in her eyes, is wonderful. And, of course, when the drunken David messes with her children, throws a towel in her face, and then breaks down the kitchen door to get at her, her fear is palpable.

Yet what makes this film truly great and groundbreaking are its special effects. Huge amounts of post production work were done overlaying images on top of one another. This allowed all of the "ghosts" in the film to appear to be see-through. The actors and objects that are ghostly can stand in front of object, and we can still see those objects, yet we can also see the ghost. Nothing like this had been done up to this point in cinema in 1921. The effects are visually stunning even today when we are spoiled with CGI. No wonder it impressed future filmmakers like Bergman so much.

No joke this time, I just think this image is really freakin' cool.

Again, I had many limitations put up in the way of my enjoying this film. However, the fact that I still loved it speaks volumes. I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to see this film in 1921. Even today it is impressive. Visually stunning and quite moving, showing true brilliance of direction, this is certainly a landmark film. I consider this film to be Amazing and give it an 8/10.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Were Gonna Be Doin' One Thing and One Thing Only...Reviewing Inglorious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino sure has a hard on for Revenge, doesn't he? I mean there was both Kill Bill movies, which were all about The Bride getting revenge. Then there was this film, Inglourious Basterds, which is essentially a Jewish Revenge Fantasy. Now, if rumors are true, Tarantino is making a "Southern," a film set in the Old South, about a former slave taking revenge upon his old master. Why is he so fascinated with this subject? Is it because revenge as a motive allows audiences to quickly sympathize with a lead without needing too much character development on either side? Is it because it allows Tarantino to use as much stylized violence as he wants without making audiences worry about whether the violence is "moral" or not? Is it because the desire to seek revenge taps into our darkest and strongest desires to cause pain and destruction in those we do not like? Did somebody kill his mum or something? The answers is probably all of the above (except the last one of course) but whatever his motive may be, making revenge movies has done nothing but good for Tarantino so far.

As a (comparatively) young director, Tarantino has always drawn upon films and genres he loved from the past to inspire his films. This time around, Tarantino is borrowing from old favorites like Spaghetti Westerns (borrowing his title from and giving a cameo to the director of the Italian movie The Inglorious Bastards) and exploitation films, as well as new genres like the WWII film. By combining these elements, Tarantino gives us a film which uses the best of Postmodern WWII films that focus on the victimhood of Jews and other groups, while also wallowing in the adrenaline-fueled Nazi-slaughtering violence of older WWII films. To me, the feel this creates works both for and against the film, as I shall explain, but you cannot deny that it makes a fun movie.

This time around the film is mostly shown in chronological order, though it is still split into chapters. We open up with a scene of an SS Officer Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) interrogating a French man because he is harboring Jews in his home. Right away you see why Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film. With every word he says, with every look, he has a perfect combination of menace and charm. Tarantino has feared that this role, a charming but scary Nazi, would be unplayable. However, thanks to Waltz, it became the best acted role in the film. When I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio was first slated to take on the role, it marked the first time I had ever been glad DiCaprio was not in a film.

Even if that pipe was a lollipop, he'd still be scary.
When Landa kills the hiding Jews, he decides to let the young daughter escape, a fatal move, as Shoshana (Melanie Lauren) becomes the proprietor of a movie theater in Paris which, thanks to the unwelcome interest of a Nazi war hero, becomes the theater where a film by Goebbels himself, starring the young hero, will be premiered, with high-ranking Nazi officers all the way up to Hitler himself attending. Shoshana and her young Black assistant/boyfriend Henri then plot to burn down the theater with all of the Nazis inside, effectively ending the war in one night. Now, though I like this film, it is in many of the scenes with this character that flaws come out. Firstly, I was unimpressed with Lauren's acting. There is a great scene of tension where she is being interrogated by Landa, who may or may not recognize her, where I felt all of the work was being done by Landa. To me, it seemed like Tarantino had written another role for Uma Thurman before realizing she was too old to play the part. Also, as a history major, I know that Black people would have been taken from France just as the Jews were, and having that character in the film was only a needless attempt to make our heroine seem even better by having here in an interracial relationship while fighting Nazis. In fact, it's actually rather insulting. This film in general portrays the French as heroic and believing in racial equality when, in fact, France was one of the most antisemitic nations in Europe, with many being overjoyed that the Nazis were taking the Jews, and of course most Blacks in France were there as a result of the brutal colonization by France of African and island nations. Nitpicks, perhaps, but they bothered me.

Melanie Lauren doing her best Uma Thurman impersonation.

The best parts of the film are when either (or both) Waltz was on screen or when the infamous Basterds were on screen. A group of Jews from around Europe and America, led by a Lieutenant from Kentucky (Brad Pitt), launch a guerrilla offensive throughout occupied France and attempt to kill as many Nazis (pronounced Nat-zeez) as possible. Most importantly, the Basterds are trying to instill fear into the heart of the Nazis, by killing huge numbers, by being incredibly brutal, and by letting some survive to tell others of their exploits. One of their most potent weapons of terror is that they always scalp the Nazis they kill (each soldier owes Pitt 100 Nazi scalps...and he wants his scalps), and even the survivors have a Nazi cross cut into their skull so that future generations will always know whose side they fought on.

"Aww shucks Fritz, I'm sure your momma raised you better than this. I mean, look at all this dandruff you got here! Well, since we ain't got no Head and Shoulders on us, looks like we'll just have to take care of that problem the old fashioned way..."

Perhaps their most potent weapon of fear is the legends that have evolved around each of the Basterds. One Basterd named Stiglitz is known for having killed 14 Nazi officers himself before being caught by the Nazis (and let out by the Basterds). Brad Pitt's character Aldo Raine is known as "The Apache" because he bases his tactics on the native American tribe of his ancestors. Most fearsome of all is "The Bear Jew," a massive Jewis boy from Brooklyn who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat and relishes every moment. This character is played by director Eli Roth, and both he and Pitt do a fantastic job. You can't really say their acting is "good acting" in the traditional sense. However, they are so over the top and psychotic that they are totally enjoyable. They are funny as well. One of the best scenes in the movie is when you first hear Pitt and Roth try and convince the Germans that they are Italian by speaking only the most basic Italian phrases in incredibly thick American accents ("Bon-jure-no, Graat-zee"). Finally I must say that even though I am no fan of Roth's work as a director, when I heard that this role was originally offered to (shudder) Adam Sandler, I was overjoyed that he was an actor in this film.

Yes, he is. Now, if only he was also a decent director.

So essentially the story that follows these characters is a big Jewish Revenge fantasy about Jewish soldiers taking massive vengeance upon those nasty Nazis (Roth called the film "kosher porn"). Other characters are added to the film as well to share this goal. A British officer/German film critic is added to the mission. We get a sexy German actress working as a collaborator. We even get to see Mike Meyers as a British officer and Winston Churchill. Add Shoshana and her boyfriend to the mix, and that is a lot of people trying to piss off Hitler.
This was Hitler's reaction when he found out that Inglourious Basterds grossed over $300 million at the box office.

So, over all, this film was a ton of fun, where almost every scene was incredible. However, I must say that this film was only really great for me the second time I watched it. When I saw it in theaters, there were a lot of things that bothered me about it that made me think it was overhyped. They bothered me less the second time, but I think I should mention these problems here. Firstly, Tarantino has a lot of personal touches that he adds to films, and while usually they improve a film, I felt they got in the way here. Of course his dialogue is amazing as always, but little things bothered me. The way he would bring up name cards next to characters occasionally did not fit the film at all, especially when it was done in big bold letters only once, or when it was done in pencil only once. 2 times in the film, and only 2 times, he had a narrator come on, and these were clearly shoved into the film to give Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel cameos, and they made these sections of the film appear sloppy. Even the soundtrack was often (though not always) needless and interrupting to the films tone. 
Most damning of all, however, is the moral ambiguity that I found in the film, along with ambiguity in the motives of many characters. Tarantino made a clear tradeoff of adding more violence to the film at the expense of making it more moving or relatable. Ok, sure, having the Basterds torture German soldiers, not caring about their families or back stories, is understandable. I might be an elitist intellectual and prefer that we create stories that show how German men were fed propaganda to make them believe in an Aryan national and a cult leader, how many were just young men fighting for their country, and how this could have happened in any nation with crippling debt and a strong political movement fueled by racism (which I might add was prevalent in all of Europe and America at the time), but if a film just wants to say, "Fuck it, they're Nazis, they deserve it," I'm not going to complain. However, at time they do seem to go for making the Germans sympathetic, just to make scenes more dramatic. When Shoshana kills that German soldier who was hitting on her, even though it looked like he was close to just raping her to get what he wants, she has a moment of regret that causes her to get shot herself, despite never showing anything but contempt for the boy before. Other characters go out of character senselessly to add violence as well. For example, when Waltz's character discovers that the German actress betrayed her country to the Americans, he loses his (up until then unbroken) cool and just strangles her. At first I thought, "OK, he's filled with rage that this whore would betray the Fatherland." However, in the next scene, he does the same thing she did! Why would he be so angry that she did something he was planning to do? It makes no sense except to give the audience more torture porn of a woman being strangled to death by a man. Also, there is a scene where the German actress shoots a young German officer to death after he has surrendered. She and the audience knows that he just had a baby. Why would she shoot him? I could understand that Basterds not caring and just killing another Nazi, but why did she do it? Was it because he called her a traitor? She was! Why does she hate him so much? For that matter, why is she even betraying her nation in the first place? I guess maybe she is doing it purely for personal gain, but she is popular in Germany. Is she afraid the Allies will win the war and wants to be on the winning team? Does she hate the Nazi party for some reason? None of this is explained. Perhaps they left out her motivations so as not to add to the already 2.5 hour running time, but I really wanted some answers especially because I had started to really feel for that young German soldier. 

"Ho ho ho, vhat fun vwe are having! I am becoming so characterized and sympathetic to ze audience. I sure hope this Bitch here doesn't kill me for no adequately explained reason!"

One controversial decision Tarantino made though was right up my street: he ended the film with the Jewish protagonists killing Hitler. He literally said, "Fuck historical accuracy, we all know how the story really ends, I'm giving my audience some freakin' catharsis!" I loved this ending and totally did not expect it the first time I saw it. What a great surprise! This has all the enjoyment of those Golden Age comics where Superman of Captain America would just punch Hitler right in the face. It's just so fun to see Hitler get shot in the face by Jewish soldiers as a house full of Nazis is burned to the ground. As John Ford said, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

"OK boys, its time for the big dance number! 1...2...3! Springtime/For Hitler/And Germanyyyyy!"

So, the film really was incredibly enjoyable, especially the second time around. After the first time I watched it, I probably would have given it a six. The second time, I was poised to give it and eight. Now that I have ruminated more on its successes and flaws, I feel I should split the difference and give it a 7/10 or a Great by my standards. It is a really great film that I would recommend, but I would not consider it a true return to form for Tarantino and his early greatness. It does however give me confidence that his next film will truly be something special!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Gorgeousness and Gorgeosity Made Flesh: A Review of A Clockwork Orange

From my username, Kurosawa_Lover, it should be very clear that my favorite director of all time is Akira Kurosawa. However, my second favorite director, and also my favorite English-Language director, is the great Stanley Kubrick. Except for his first three films, every film he made from Paths of Glory (1957) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), ten films over 42 years, has been in The Book. No other director can claim a record like that of consecutive entries in The Book, and only Hitchcock and Bunuel can match those years of his making great films. I have seen all of these films except the last and absolutely loved each and every one of them. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this film, A Clockwork Orange, is his finest film. It could easily fit in my top ten favorite films of all time, and it showcases everything that is great about Kubrick films.

Firstly, this film clearly has one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of film. The reveal of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in a facial closeup is perfect. Everything about the character is revealed in his sinister smirk, in his mischievous eyes. As the camera pulls away, it is slowly revealed that we are viewing some perverse future bar, with naked statues dispensing bottles of milk. As Alex literally toasts the audience to welcome us into the fantastic world, we hear his voice explaining to us that this bar gives patrons milk filled with futuristic drugs, and that he and his "droogs" are drinking up for "a night of the old ultra-violence." For you see, Alex is not giving us a typical narration in plain English, he is speaking to us in Nadsat, a language created by the write of the novel, Anthony Burgess, that is a mix of Russian, Yiddish, cockney slang, and pure imagination.

Never has a man wearing a Bowler and too much mascara been so terrifying.

This opening scene truly shows the brilliance of Kubrick's directing, the kind of directing that makes you say, "wow, if this director had not directed this film, no one could have." Firstly, the only thing in the scene that really moves is the camera as it goes backwards to give the reveal. So many scenes are like this, resembling photographs more that motion pictures, and this is due to the fact that Kubrick started as a photographer. Many directors have these quirks, where their work before film colors the way their films are made (for example, Kurosawa was an accomplished painter, and painted nearly all of his storyboards, and this influence can be seen especially in his later color films). Secondly, it is a major achievement that the Nasdat language actually sounds completely awesome in this film. Obviously the language was created by Burgess and was fantastic in the novel. However, things that are brilliant in novels do not always translate well onto film. The language might sound good in a book, but when you see people actually speaking it it could appear ridiculous. But, thanks to Kubrick's directing (and McDowell's acting) the use of the language both in the narration and on screen creates this atmosphere of oddity and perverse delight that perfectly fits the mood of the film. Thirdly, it needs to be acknowledge that this scene could have appeared completely ridiculous, but not in a purposeful or good way. Back in the early 70s when this film was made, before CGI and many special effects technology, physical props had to be created more often for scenes. So many exploitation films looked ridiculous with the lameness of their props. A shot with a bunch of naked statues and men standing around in white leotards could have been to silly to be taken seriously. However, something about the way Kubrick creates this scene stops it from being ridiculous and makes it fascinating.

Essentially every scene of this film is brilliant. Alex and his droogs beating up the old man. The gang of would-be rapists interrupted so they can face Alex and "come and get it in the yarbles." Alex killing a woman by shoving a giant phallus down her throat. Alex bending over to have his anus examined by a stuck-up prison guard. On top of all those scenes and many more, this film contains one of the most disturbing scenes in film: Alex and his droogs raping a woman and beating an old man while Alex sings "Singing in the Rain." This scene is perverse on two levels. Firstly, it is perverse within the context of the film, because hearing someone sing while they rape someone brutally, clearly enjoying it with so much abandon, is just deeply disturbing (and the creepiness is heightened by the droog Dim repeating after Alex is his thick, stupid drawl with an animal-like expectation). Secondly, it is perverse on a meta level, outside of the film, because it takes one of the most cheerful and innocent songs in the history of film and irrevocably corrupts it. For lovers of film, seeing this innocent song used in this perverse setting must either be perceived as brilliance or sacrilege.

"Thank you, thank you, and now, as an encore, I will sing Over The Rainbow while kicking a puppy."

Another fantastic touch to this film which is pure Kubrick is the incredible use of classical music. His score to his previous film 2001: A Space Odyssey is very acclaimed for adding great atmosphere by using old classical music in a futuristic setting, and this film continues this trend (his next film, Barry Lyndon, would put classical music in its contemporary setting, also to great effect). However, this score has a bit of a twist. The score takes classical music but occasionally puts a futuristic twist on it thanks to composer Wendy Carlos. For example, perhaps my favorite scene in the film is when Alex takes two devotchkas back to his place and gives them the old in-out in-out in a scene that took 28 minutes to film, but is sped up to about 30x its speed while a sped up version of "William Tell Overture" plays.

Dick-shaped lollipops and classical music. Geez, kids these days have weird tastes.
In the end, however, above all the style and grace, the thing that makes this film great is its fantastic, biting, darkly comical social commentary. This is a film about freedom of choice. There is nothing more inhuman than taking away a person's individual autonomy. The film in the end is not primarily attacking Alex for his evil ways. Alex at least is honest about his desires. No, the film is attacking the system around all of us, for being just as self serving as Alex is, but without his honesty. Every single authority figure Alex encounters directly abuses him to fulfill their own desires. Firstly, there is his juvenile parole office Mr. Deltoid (stealing his two short scenes thanks to superb acting by Aubrey Morris). Mr. Deltoid is supposed to watch over Alex to help him learn the error of his way, but it is clear that his only concern in that Alex stay in line so he does not get a "black mark," and he clearly enjoys sadistically causing Alex pain when he whacks him in the yarbles unexpectedly.

Mmm yeeeees, I certainly do love a nice game of Rochambeau, don't you? I think I'll go first, mmmmmmm yeeeeeessssss

Then there are Alex's parents, who are always touted as being wonderful, but clearly are neglectful. Oh sure, they feed and clothe him, but there is clearly no true emotional connection. They know nothing about him and try their best not to know. How, could he continue murdering and raping and bringing home stolen goods, how could he have even got the way he is, without emotional neglect. Clearly, when they effectively throw him out upon his return from jail in favor of a surrogate "good son" who is now their lodger, its clear their care for him is skin deep. Then at the jail he is given a number and has orders barked at him by the Chief Guard (another fantastic performance by Michael Bates). The Chief clearly has no expectation that Alex or any of the other prisoners can reform, loves to call them scum and in a later scene when Alex is forced to lick a man's boot he clearly enjoys his suffering.

Somebody should look up his ass and pull out the big stick he has stuck up there.

Alex learns to lie and act good and put on fake smiles and crocodile tears to get the other authority figures to like him. This gives him the opportunity to be part of a radical new treatment where criminals are "cured" of their desire to commit crimes with drugs and aversion therapy (just how rapists are "cured" of their lust by chemical castration). This gives the Minister of the Interior and several doctors the chance to abuse Alex to advance their own political and scientific goals by forcing him to watch films of sex and violence while taking chemicals so that these scenes make him sick, which will late make him sick when he trick to rape or attack people.

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When the now "cured" Alex released back into the world, we get to see just how hypocritical society really is. For, as much as members of society decried Alex for attacking people, now that Alex can no longer defend himself, society at large has no problem abusing him to their hearts content. His parents kick him out. A bunch of old bums beat him up, partly out of revenge and partly out of bitterness against youth in general. In perhaps the greatest attack on "proper society," we see that Alex's old droogs, the ones who attacked him and let him go to jail while they got off scott free, are now actually police officers, little better than thugs hired on the cheap to rough up the riff raff. Hey, as long as it keeps those hoodlums off my street, who cares what happens to them, right?

"Guys, why are you beating me up now? Is it because of the whole kicking your asses into the water and slicing up your hand thing? I thought we were past that!"
For a while you think this film might only be attacking conservative society. However, in a cruel twist of fate, after Alex has been beaten by the police, he stumbles upon the home where he raped that poor woman. She killed herself afterwards, but the old man is still there, albeit in a wheel chair. This guy is a very liberal writer. He sympathizes with Alex, and wants to use his story to attack the conservative government for hiring thugs and taking away a man's ability to defend himself. His purpose is good. Sure, he says something ominous about the "common people" needing to be led so that they do not give up essential liberties for the feeling of security under a tyrant, but heck, that statement is kind of true. However, once he discovers that Alex is the one who raped his wife, he loses all thought of doing good, and merely wants to take revenge on Alex by forcing him to kill himself. All of us, even the supposedly high minded, are in the end driven by our personal desires, even at the cost of the suffering of others.
Ever seen a man get possessed by Satan and then take a huge dump right above you? This is about as close as you will get to that image.
That's what is truly great about this film: it conveys its message not by making us feel bad for the suffering of some morally perfect character, but for a clearly evil character. This sadistic, murdering, selfish, violent, awful rapist who fantasizes about beating Jesus Christ is actually the victim in this story!  As evil as he is, the greatest evil is the system he lives in. It is this system that teaches him that all that is worth having in life is fun and money. It is this system that uses and abuses people for its own benefit. In an attempt to make others feel safe, the system is willing to take away the most human aspect of all of us, our free will. The system has no concern for right over wrong, just order over chaos. Even then, it all boils down to achieving the desires of those with power. The leaders of the government are perfectly happy to let Alex return to his "normal" violent rapist state and set him free on the streets, so long as he does a publicity stunt for the party in power first. Alex clearly learned all of his violent ways as a way to survive and get ahead in the society that surrounds him, just as he learned how to lie and deceive to survive in jail, and as soon as he cannot defend himself, society is perfectly happy to crush him to fulfill its own desires.
Why do I say this film is Kubrick's greatest film? Because it has all of the style and brilliance of his classics like 2001 and The Shining, but it is also less emotionally detached than those films, because it actually has a moral message and deep character development (like his earlier Paths of Glory and Lolita), as well as much of the dark humor that Dr. Strangelove had. In short, it is a collection of the best of everything Kubrick has to offer as a director. I love this movie. It is one of the greatest films ever made, with every scene, every actor, being spot on at all times. I give this Essential film an official grade of 10/10