A Clockwork Orange (1971)

 

a-clockwork-orange-1“He will be your true Christian: ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify” ~ Minister of the Interior

Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange began as a troubling book and it becomes perhaps an even more troubling film full of volatility placed in the hands of Stanely Kubrick.

At its core are many deep-rooted issues of violence, morality, and free will all coming to the fore because of one teenage hoodlum and his rehabilitation from a life of savage juvenile delinquency. Whereas Burgess created this parable in all sincerity to consider these very issues of morality, it’s easy to get the sense that Kubrick simply found this moral conundrum a fascinating exercise in itself. You only have to look at Dr. Strangelove to see his proclivity towards wicked wit or only to venture with 2001 to observe his penchant for deep philosophical paradigms wrapped up in the science fiction.  A Clockwork Orange has all of that and it’s a perturbing practice in both satire and science fiction. It hums with classical music and synths, shot with distorting wide-angle lenses, while also modeling Kubrick’s perfectionist tendencies.

Malcolm McDowell’s voice-overs as the main hoodlum Alex DeLarge are a major component of the film’s structure, recalling the phraseology and world developed in Burgesses original source material. For instance, Beethoven becomes Ludwig Van. Droogs are friends. Horrorshow is good or well. Then, Ultraviolence and the old in-out don’t need much explanation.

In fact, during the course of this film, Alex takes part in equal measures of both, causing havoc with his friends and bedding a pair of girls. There is seemingly no end to his depravity and the fascinating part is that he seems to enjoy it all.

That is, until, the government steps in to reform him. Alex is sent from prison to the Ludovico Medical Facility where he is to be issued a new variation of aversion therapy. And this is where, rather ironically, the famed sequence of Malcolm McDowell eyes wide screaming at the images passed in front of him entered the public consciousness. His corneas actually getting scratched in the process and the images forever ingrained in our society from that point forward.

But all of this early depravity, followed by his rehabilitation are only the beginning.  And it’s in these interludes that Kubrick tries to impress upon us the idea of Alex being our hero. It’s a difficult thought to deal with. But that’s of little consequence compared to the moral issues that hang in the balance here.

You cannot watch this film and not only feel somewhat dirtied but also saddened at what man is capable of doing. And it’s not only in the case of one man to another, or a small group to another. But, in this case, an entire bureaucracy of people systematically ridding their streets of crime. It’s a strange question maybe, but the question must still be asked, at what cost is all of this? It deserves our attention.

And to try and tease out some answers it seems crucial to look back to Burgess because although these are questions that undoubtedly intrigued Kubrick as well, but it was Burgess who first brought them to the fore. In this case, the author’s own religious background seems to have telling implications for this moral tale that he wove. He intended A Clockwork Orange to be a parable of what defines free will and forgiveness from a Christian perspective in particular.

What is goodness or forgiveness if we lose our free will — if we are only machines — functioning without beating hearts and all that is human within us. What kind of good would the greatest act of love in the universe be if it was done out of compulsion — not genuine love and charity?

In the case of Alex DeLarge, he no longers craves ultraviolence or his former lustful desires for women, but it has nothing to do with a change of heart. He’s simply learned to be repulsed by them. Kubrick’s picture is darkly perverse and the film ends not with the promise of the novel but a thoroughly downbeat ending that rings hollow.  It becomes obvious that Alex’s core desires have hardly changed. He’s simply been conditioned to know what is “good” and “bad.” That’s perhaps an even more terrifying reality than one of violence and evil.

The story goes that when Gene Kelly crossed paths with Malcolm McDowell he coldly walked away because it was in this film that his iconic tune “Singin’ in the Rain” was notoriously tarnished. But really this entire film is a dark blot and it’s truly horribly dismal to watch at times.  I cannot even manage to watch it in its entirety. Not simply for its graphic nature, but the tone that it endows. While Alex DeLarge is far from a sympathetic protagonist, it’s hard not to pity him — poor fool that he is.

3.5/5 Stars

The Shining (1980)

Statheshining3nley Kubrick is not generally known as a horror film director. His impact was far broader than solely one genre. How is it then that he made one of the enduring canonical films in the horror genre? It’s been over 30 years and people are still talking about The Shining — still using it in every kind of parody and homage imaginable. Like a Hitchcock or a Spielberg, he’s one of those directors with an eye for what’s thrilling as far cinema is concerned, but perhaps more so Kubrick deals in complexities. Ambiguity is his friend as much as the beautifully shot interiors of The Shining. He builds and constructs the perfect scaffold to work off of, and it’s full of tension and shock value, but it leaves the audience with questions. I watched Nosferatu recently and what I came out of it with was a conviction that it was not your typical horror film — it seems to follow you and haunt your thoughts in a sense. The Shining is a little more like a modern horror with frightening images, and yet it shares that same quality. You cannot help but ruminate over it or think about what you just saw and what it really means. Truth be told, I don’t know what to think about the cryptic ending and, in all honesty, I don’t care too much, although it makes for interesting discussion.

theshining1This film found its source in Stephen King’s novel (which I have not read). For the life of me, I had never thought of the significance of the title, but Scatman Crother’s character explains it in the same way that his mama had before him. “Shining” is being able to talk without your mouths. The little boy Danny Torrance has such an ability, and it proves to be the entry point into this film’s conceit. Not only is he able to say things without talking, but he sees things, horrible things, that other’s cannot — rather like The Sixth Sense (1999).

His father Jack (Jack Nicholson) and mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) take him to a Colorado mountain getaway for 5 months of isolation, because it seems like a good deal. After all, Jack wants to get some work done on his book and he could use the unbroken solitude,  but of course, there’s an underlying tension that slowly builds as their time alone draws nearer. It’s done through the foreshadowing of cryptic images, violent tales of local folklore, and of course, a score that is constantly ringing in our ears. That’s the best way I can describe it. We know something is up.

So what does Room 237 mean? What about Grady and the bartender who serves Jack his drinks at the bar? They’re just as perplexing as Danny’s ability or the sudden change that seems to come over Jack. There are these perplexing moments that are difficult to account for whether it’s the initial introduction of the Chief (Scatman Crothers) and Danny, who he telepathically communicates with. Then, Jack Nicholson carries such a genial quality, and yet underlining all those Cheshire cat smiles is something deeply troubling.

theshining4Amidst the dreams and haunting images that blur the line between fantasy and reality, past and present, there is a strange fascination that develops for The Shining. Almost a morbid fascination, because we know something is wrong, but we keep watching anyway. We want to know what happens and furthermore, Kubrick’s visuals are often mesmerizing, although they remain indoors for the most part. His camera often trailing characters as if they are prey.

He pays his audience the final respect of not giving us everything and not tying up all the loose ends. We are left with images and photos ingrained in our mind’s eyes. Admittedly, Shelley Duvall is not an actress I usually pay great attention to, and certainly, this is Nicholson’s film along with Kubrick. He was made for such a twisted, layered role, that overflows with a certain level of affability and then becomes completely psychotic. It makes him far creepier than any villain clothed in black because Jack Torrance will openly kill you with a sing-song voice. That’s pure evil.

4/5/5 Stars

Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr._StrangeloveHow to speak of Dr. Strangelove? To clarify I mean the film and not the character. First and foremost, it’s one of those films that has so much significance, because of the era it came out of and for the way it represents that time and space. It’s the defining film about the Cold War, much in the same way All the President’s Men is identified with Watergate and the sentiments at the time.

This film is wickedly funny, and yet I never found myself laughing out loud. There was more often a smirk slowly forming on my face. This film is a landmark and an important piece of cinema and yet I could never say I have a passionate love for it. What sets it apart is the way that Kubrick is able to tackle the paranoia at the time.

His plot is utterly ridiculous and absurd and yet in anything, there is always a sliver of truth that seems all too real. A film throwing around talk of nuclear war and doomsday devices is rather bleak and so I suppose Dr. Strangelove is a type of morbid humor. Certainly a black, satirical comedy.

Kubrick’s story is split into three sections: There the B-52 bomber where the crew including Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones patrol the skies until they get the unmistakable order to proceed with “Plan R” which begins an attack on Russia. Slim Pickens is an inspired piece of casting with his iconic southern drawl because he plays everything straight, but you cannot help find it funny. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the cockpit and then there’s, of course, his mounting the bucking bomb, but that comes later…

The order was given on the command of a General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) after he ordered his aide British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to put their base on high alert. All this came about because of Ripper’s fears about fluoridation and bodily fluids. He’s sure the Commies have infiltrated and so he prepares to decimate them. He bypasses the president, all communication is cut off, and he locks himself and Mandrake up in his office. As far as he’s concerned the deed is done. He can just go on chomping on his cigar while comforting Mandrake. Because there’s no way that he would ever disclose the three-letter code so his aide can warn the Pentagon.

The final setting of the film takes place in the legendary war room which feels rather like a velodrome with a table in the center. There the highest officials of the nation gather round to try and figure out what to do about this national crisis. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises the president on what to do about the situation while chewing away at a wad of gum. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers once more), is far from pleased and he even sends a call over “the hotline,” to the Russian Premier. He shares his deep regrets about the situation with Dimitri and it gives Seller a stage on which to work his deadpan humor. Muffley also tries to maintain order after Turgidson and the Russian Ambassador get in a scuffle (Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!).

Meanwhile, a battle ensues at Ripper’s base as the apt billboard inscribed “Peace is our Program” sits in the background. This is an utterly ludicrous firefight and it ends with an appearance by Keenan Wynn ready to take Mandrake and Ripper captive. However, the general has already kicked the bucket and Mandrake attempts to use a payphone to reach the Pentagon.

But the best advice the president gets comes from Nazi-defector Dr. Strangelove (Sellers number three), who is restricted to a wheelchair and still has trouble stifling his “Heil Hitler” and “Mein Fuhrer.” His final solution is to gather a few hundred people in mine shafts underground, away from the radiation, where they can procreate. The female to male ratio optimally would be 10:1 and that starts Turgidson salivating. We don’t quite know how it ends, but Kubrick ends with the iconic juxtaposition of nuclear bombs exploding as “We’ll Meet Again” wafts through the air. It’s the last brilliant piece of humor.

Dr. Strangelove is a great film in part because of its performances beginning with Seller. We’re used to his lovable buffoon Inspector Clouseau and yet he’s quite different here. Each character is starkly different in fact, but each one is played straight with their assorted quirks laid out for us.  Slim Pickens, a man also known for his comedic sidekick roles is playing it straight which is also funny in itself.

Finally, George C. Scott is one of the stars that we would label a dramatic actor and yet this is probably the most over the top and odd performance of his career. It’s wonderfully vibrant in all respects from the gesticulation of his body to his facial expressions.

Everything’s an odd mix where hysteria with global consequence is matter-of-fact. There’s no fighting in war rooms. There are Cold Wars and Hotlines. Nazi Doctors advise the president and Russian ambassadors are tackled to the ground. It’s pointing to the inconsistencies in this world that we live in. It’s a satire about the absurdity of nuclear deterrence in an age where that was in vogue.

4.5/5 Stars

Paths of Glory (1957)

87e30-pathsofgloryposterStarring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, this war film with a twist follows a French Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) and his men during World War I. He is ordered to take part in a suicide mission by a general and everything soon goes awry. After they unsuccessfully go through with the mission , three of Dax’s men find themselves being court martialed as examples for supposed cowardliness. Despite a defense by Dax in court, the three men are found guilty and later executed by firing squad. This and other events cause Dax to openly question the decisions of his superiors. In a very touching final scene there seems to be a questioning of the inhumanity of war. In one of his earlier films Kubrick delivers a poignant piece.
 
4/5 Stars

Review: The Killing (1956)

e4855-thekilling1Stanley Kubrick is one of the most acclaimed directors of all time, and The Killing is his first great film. The main focus of the action takes place at a racetrack, but a great deal of the story occurs in other places before and after the job is pulled.  Recently released Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is the mastermind behind an intricately planned job. It’s a whole complex jigsaw puzzle involving a few “Average Joes” and a couple professionals. When you put it together it all adds up to the perfect heist.

Marvin is a friend of Johnny’s and a fatherly figure who is backing the deal. George (Elisha Cook Jr.) is the paranoid window teller banking on the job so he can hold onto his shallow wife. Randy is the policeman who is set to pick up the plunder. Then, Mike is the bartender who is supposed to help with the distraction. Johnny lines up the brawn, Maurice, to start a fight at the race track with Mike. He gets a sharpshooter named Nikki to bump off a horse and it’s all set. All their plans revolve around the Seventh Race, and they have it planned out to the minute. The beauty of The Killing is that it all but works like clockwork. The horse is shot, the brawl does its job, the vault is cleaned out, and the money gets picked up. Only a few small problems crop up.

After the job is done is another matter, as the perfect timetable begins to break down. In a matter of seconds, things blow up thanks to George’s backstabbing wife (Marie Windsor). Soon the carnage is strewn all over the floor. Johnny holds onto the money as previously decided since things go awry, and he makes the getaway. His girl (Colleen Gray) is waiting at the airport and it looks to be smooth sailing from here on out.

Thanks to a yippy dog and a precarious perch, the money-laden suitcase takes a tumble and the contents fly off. All too soon it’s raining money, and there’s nothing Johnny can do about it. He leaves the terminal with Fay, but with no taxi to be had, he gets nabbed and there is no chance to escape. After everything lining up so perfectly for him, in a cruel turn everything that could go wrong did. He was not going to be so lucky.

The title of this film always struck me as ambiguous, whether it meant the amount of money being taken or the deaths that take place I’m not sure. However, I do know that The Killing is tautly constructed. The non-linear and sometimes overlapping narrative is held together by the narrator. He seems fit for a newsreel, but he complements the straightforward procedure of the film with timestamps included.

Because of the lead performance of Sterling Hayden and the main plot element of a heist, this film can sometimes be confused with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). However, I enjoy this storyline more because the heist is not the issue. It is the aftermath and all the subsequent problems occurring so rapidly.

It is a wonderful unraveling thriller and although we do not see Johnny arrested, he might as well be because there are two men with pistols drawn walking right towards him. The Killing was not a big payoff for Hayden’s character, but it certainly is for the audience.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Dr. Strangelove… (1964)

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Living up to its name, this satire directed by Stanley Kubrick is quite peculiar to say the  least. The nation is on the edge of nuclear war because of a lunatic general (Sterling Hayden) who made the decision to override the authority of the president (Peter Sellers). Tempers flare in the war room as the leaders decide what to do. Will the Doomsday device be unleashed as Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again) supposes or will the bomb be stopped in time? One of the obvious highlights of this film would have to be Peter Seller’s performances as three distinct characters. George C. Scott also delivers a very respectable performance as a general advising the president. Then, there is Slim Pickens who is often remembered for the famous bomb riding scene. This film is good but in my mind it is not great. However, it does depict an era of tremendous fear brought on by the Cold War, thus making it historically important.

4.5/5 Stars

Spartacus (1960)

91a01-spartacus_sheetaIn this epic film starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, a slave turned gladiator leads a revolt against the Roman empire. Spartacus leads his fellow plebeians in a sacking and burning of the countryside while slowly gaining followers. Along the way he is reunited with his love (Jean Simmons). However, soon all hope of triumph or escape is gone and Spartacus must face the Roman legions in one final battle. Utterly overwhelmed by the other forces, his followers are slaughtered and taken prisoner. With all hope gone he must kill his friend (Tony Curtis) and then face death himself by crucifixion. But all is not lost because his wife and child do get away allowing his legacy to remain. Overall this film is good but it does have flaws, one of them being the casting of Tony Curtis with his New York accent. Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov all have important roles in this film as well.

5/5 Stars

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I have to admit that this sci-fi film directed by Stanley Kubrick left me feeling let down. The movie itself is split up into four parts, the first beginning in the prehistoric era with a group of apes. Over time a mysterious structure appears and the apes learn how to make tools. From there it cuts to the exploration of space where man goes to Jupiter and beyond with the help of HAL 9000, a skilled but dangerous computer. The classical score is quite good working with the visual but sometimes it seems the movie is lacking in other areas. There is minimal dialogue, it seems that there could be better editing aside from the famous jump cut near the beginning, and the plot jumps all over the place. What I take away from it is the progression of man over time. The fact that there is really no memorable character except the non-human computer is also interesting. Finally, this film was made before the moon landing so in a way it was ahead of its time. That being said it still was not my favorite film.

4/5 Stars

The Killing (1956) – Film-Noir

1eadc-thekillingposterkubrickDirected by Stanley Kubrick and starring Sterling Hayden, the film follows a group of crooks and everyday race track workers who carry out an intricate robbery. In the planning stages they have everything figured out completely with one small disturbance. When the day arrives, the plan begins as expected. Each man takes his place in order to do his part. Perfectly coordinated with a disruption in the race and a planned riot. Hayden grabs all the money he can and drops it to an accomplice with hardly a snag. While waiting to split the heist there is finally a wrench in the plans that turns fatal. Hayden catches wind of it and splits as was decided beforehand. With his money and his girl he gets ready to leave the trouble behind him. In a final cruel twist of fate his plan is accidentally uncovered. The shock takes all the fight out of him. This film is wonderfully constructed with its different point of views all hinging on race #7 and the subsequent “killing.”

4.5/5 Stars