Tag Archives: film studies

Movie Essentials: “Eyes Wide Shut”

Being the last film of the great Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut” often gets a bad reputation for not being as strong as Kubrick’s other works, but doing that severely looks down upon a great film.

While not as revolutionary as “2001: A Space Odyssey” or as iconic as “The Shining”, “Eyes Wide Shut” is a brilliant examination into sexual dominance and subconscious lust.

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The film starts off with Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), going to a party hosted by the wealthy Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). A suave, mature gentlemen dances with Alice while two beautiful women flirt with Bill. Once they get home, Alice questions Bill about his intentions with those women, wondering if he had intercourse with them. Bill tells her that he wouldn’t because he loves her, but Alice reveals that she almost cheated on him even though it would have meant throwing their lives away.

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Bill’s eyes are closed to the undercurrents of the world around him, even from within his own family. He has societal shields set up that blind him to the ravenous sexual longings in others, shields such as congenial societal discourse and proper presentation. As he journeys forth from this discussion with Alice, he begins to see his blinders lessen in the dead of night.

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His anger and obsession with this vision of his wife and another man drives him to try infidelity himself. From the grieving daughter of his dead patient to a hooker he meets on the streets to the underage daughter of a costume shop owner, Bill finds the shady desire that lingers in a world he doesn’t understand. This is all culminated when he tricks his way into a nighttime sexcapade party where everyone is wearing a mask and the password is the not-so-subtle word “fidelio.”

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The masks represent the true selves of the participants, expressionless and ornery. Their actual physical faces are just facades that they use in public, facades that Bill has used to blind himself to the truth of the world around him; that subliminal desires drive us. This is also represented by the pale blue light lurking behind the characters in multiple scenes, beneath the surface but always present.

The entire party is presented as almost a dream, blurring the line between reality and surrealism. As the film continues, the viewer wonders exactly what is real: the dream or reality? The blending of both gives the viewer a portrayal of the psyche.

Kubrick is a master of crafting the subconscious into his films. The latent raw sexuality presented in “Eyes Wide Shut” is his reflection of the desires, grotesque or not, of the psyche inherent in us.

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At the film’s conclusion, Bill’s only salvation from his journey is his belief in marriage and the bond that holds him to his wife; not just sex but love and commitment as well. He can not unsee the desires that drive the world that he was blinded to, but he can maintain a sense of identity against those primal instincts and that identity is typified by being a husband. Whether or not he saves his marriage is unknown, but is left for the viewer to interpret.

The film is hypnotic in its ability to draw the viewer into its central mystery of possible murder, but it’s the peeling back of our “humanity” that sticks with the viewer. The delving into our inner psychosis is something that perhaps no filmmaker has done better than Kubrick and it makes everyone of his films memorable.

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‘The Lobster’ a wonderful black comedy

In today’s socially-conscious world, it’s hard to make a good black comedy, something that’s funny in a morbid way that doesn’t offend anyone. One way to get around that is social commentary, and that is exactly what writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos accomplishes with “The Lobster”; it peers directly into the idea of coupling as not a good or a bad thing, but a social construct that hamstrings some, confuses many and finds just a select few.

In the world of the film, you have to be a couple in order to be a part of society. If you find yourself single at any point, you are sent to The Hotel where you are given a select amount of time to find a mate; if you don’t, you are turned into an animal of your choosing and released into the wild. Such is the case of David (Colin Farrell), who is dumped by his girlfriend and finds himself needing to find love soon or else he will be turned into a lobster.

The concept is so rich and ridiculous that the story finds humor with the escalating pressure to find a mate. John C. Reilly’s character (simply listed as Lisping Man) has his hand put in a toaster for masturbating. The nurses have to give a semi-lap dance to the men in order to keep them aroused and remind them of the allure of love. Loners are hunted down and shot with tranquilizers in the wild. When you go out in public, you must have proof of companionship in a formal document.

The sheer lunacy of it all is hysterical, but the commentary on our own world is enlightening. Why do we deem that people must find love? Why is that important for us? What is true companionship? How is love tested? What is love itself?

As David discovers over the course of the story, those loners they hunt out in the wild are not much for happiness either. Only when he meets the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) does he get a taste of happiness, a glimpse into love. But even that is tested, and the ending of the film is ambiguous: Does he love her or was it passing infatuation? What is he willing to do for that love? Was it worth it? As the characters contemplate these questions, a random flamingo will wander past them, some poor wretch who never found that special someone; it is both terrifying and hilarious.

“The Lobster” makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you feel. It’s one of the best films of the year, an enveloping social commentary disguised as a comedy where the joke is on all of us who think we understand love.

‘The Revenant’ a powerful film

Leonardo DiCaprio and co. went through hell to make “The Revenant.” The shoot was shot in sequence in difficult locations (originally in Canada, the crew was forced to go to Argentina in search of snow), the budget went over by multiple millions, the schedule for filming was extended from March until August (forcing actor Tom Hardy to drop from the planned “Suicide Squad” film) and many members of the crew quit. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu refused to use digital effects and to make the film shoot as real as possible to convey the feeling of survival after being left for dead.

Well, consider that one accomplishment of the movie.

“The Revenant” is indeed a story of survival as a fur trapper, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a bear and left for dead by one of his companions, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Seeking revenge for this and other affronts, Glass must overcome his wounds and brave the harsh winter wilderness to achieve his revenge.

Nature here is simultaneously gorgeous and horrific (DP Emmanuel Lubezki used only natural light for the film). It is unforgiving, but also not malevolent, given preference to no one, just simply being. In that way, Glass is facing his own power to endure as he is tested again and again.

The violence in the film is astounding, some of the most brutal and realistic to ever be on screen. As the confrontations between different Native American tribes, the French, the fur traders and the English all escalate (plus bears!), the viewer comes to realize that the film is stating that violence is inherently part of the human condition, as indisputable a force as nature’s abject cruelty. The strength of Glass’ spirit then is being tested against both of these unyielding forces, the inherent cruelty of man and the harshness of nature.

Another strong theme is that of children. The mother bear who attacks Glass is trying to protect her young. Glass himself has a half-Native American son. The fur the traders collect is meant to be used to feed their families. This caring for youth, the hope to pass safety and joy to the next generation, feeds the film with strength and heart. It gives motivation to Glass and others to endure the cold and the violence.

The film feels like a Native American fable, telling the simple story of a man risen from the dead who travels the wilderness to find revenge. The viewer can almost hear the narrator whisper the tale to them near a campfire. The openness of the plot leaves lots of room for interpretation into what exactly the theme of the film is, and Iñárritu does not tip his hand towards any definitive conclusions. This works towards the film’s betterment and detriment, for as beautiful and investing as the journey is, the viewer is left with a feeling of “What was that all for?” at the conclusion if they are unable to discern it’s meaning for themselves.

Nevertheless, in terms of filmmaking craft, the film is a masterpiece, a sprawling journey that illuminates camerawork, lighting, sound, visual effects, acting and writing. It’s a great movie spectacle, one that should not be missed for the serious film fan.

‘Under the Skin’ eerie, brilliant

Jonathan Glazer is a hard filmmaker to like. His films (Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004)) are impersonal, and yet highly personal. His characters are aloof, yet representative of us all. The style is detached, glacial almost, and the imagery haunting yet beautiful. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s style, there are some who will just not understand the appeal. For those with the patience to peer into his latest film, Under the Skin, the journey will be rewarding.

The film is breathtaking in its own horrifying way, symbolic of the human race’s struggle for connection, love and joy. With the sheer audacity of its themes, the slowness of its pace and the subliminal character motivations, it is a cinematic experience so different from contemporary films that it is entirely unique.

Scarlett Johansson is an alien being who wanders the Scottish country, luring men to a strange house of blackness where they are… it is never made especially clear what it is that happens to them, but suffice it to say, it isn’t good, and they are never seen again.

As the alien wanders through her environment, she starts to gain empathy for the humans around her. She tries to make a connection, acting more and more like us, but something always keeps her detached from ever being truly part of humanity. And mankind’s own brutality pushes her away.

There is very scant dialogue throughout the film with several of the scenes random meetings with strangers on the street the crew filmed. The film is really more about physical interactions, the things that draw us towards one another. Glazer is more concerned with mood and physical space to tell his story, many scenes utilizing the facial expressions of Johansson alone to convey the action.

What is beauty? The film grapples with this question during the alien’s journey. Is it what we normally think of as beautiful (love, friendship, birth, food)? Or is the dark underbelly of the world (vulgarity, death, ugliness) beautiful as well? What makes us human is not just our goodness, it is also our evil, and both are at once majestic and awful the film seems to suggest. The world is monotone through the alien’s eyes, and she learns how we choose what to validate and admonish. Her loneliness and inability to truly fit in reflect each of our sensibilities.

Under the Skin is indeed hard to sit through and after one viewing, many will never want to visit his vision again, but for those with the patience and temperament to handle it, it is a rewarding cinematic experience.

‘The Jungle Book’ gorgeous

Despite the fact that it is a nostalgia-driven marketing endeavor, Disney’s latest live-action foray based off one of their animated classics works because it is filled with heart and gorgeously animated.

Much like its predecessor, “The Jungle Book” focuses on the young boy Mowgli (Neel Sethi) raised by wolves. When the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) threatens to kill him, his panther guardian Bagheera (voice of Sir Ben Kingsley) leads him on a quest to the man village where he’ll be safe. Along the way, they meet the villainous Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), the gigantic King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) and the lovable Baloo (voice of Bill Murray).

Much of the plot remains intact from the animated film with one huge change near the film’s conclusion meant to make way for a sequel (it is not terrible, but not great either). The characters are magnificent CGI representations, full of identity, grace and beauty, and all of the voice actors are excellent (Idris Elba in particular).

The theme of man as a disease to nature works well and respect towards each other across species is a metaphor to our current culture. With a fully realized world in the Indian jungle, the film is engrossing, entertaining and full of Disney charm.

Two detriments to the story are inherent however. One is that the movie can not help but exist in the shadow of its predecessor. It tries to push out and be its own film at times, but with every rendition of “I Want to Be Like You” the film reminds viewers that it is essentially a remake. The film then works as a companion piece to the original, but one can’t help but wonder what the final product would have looked like if director Jon Favreau had been able to create Kipling’s tale independent of the animated film.

The other is the manner of the making of the film. There is no actual jungle at all. Everything was shot in a Los Angeles sound studio. Every creature, tree, mountain is all computer-animated. It is the height of hypocrisy for a film whose moral is the preservation of nature to not actually feature any real nature in it. The film lacks grit and a sense of reality because of it. It is a shame.

But overall, the film is enjoyable, well-made and strong. It is the best live action from animated film released by Disney and an argument can be made that it is even better than the original.

‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ beautiful, works despite some narrative flaws

Directed by Travis Knight, “Kubo and the Two Strings” tells the story of Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy hunted by his grandfather, a moon spirit (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). After the death of his father, a great warrior trying to protect him, he and his mother run away to a village. Kubo is gifted with magic that erupts with his playing of a stringed instrument, magic that transforms paper into different shapes and animates objects. When his grandfather and his witch aunts find him, they hunt him across the country. Only by collecting his father’s armor, aided by a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai cursed with no memory and transformed into a beetle (Matthew McConaughey), can Kubo hope to succeed.

Laika Studios has produced some gorgeous animation over the last several years, from “Coraline” to “Boxtrolls”, but “Kubo” is truly inspiring, evoking 17th century Japanese imagery. Whether it be a tidal wave or an entire ship made out of leaves, the frames are crisp, colorful and wonderfully lit the whole way through.

The tale of a boy who loses his parents is very elemental and his quest involves monsters and witches and animals and magic, told through the guise of an old fable. It is very adult for a children’s tale, but it works for all audiences. The filmmakers should be commended for not dumbing down the plot or the themes to create a “children’s movie” as so many other studios do.

The issues however come in two forms: Westernization and character revelations. The use of Hollywood stars as the principal characters in a Far East story seems a little culturally insensitive. And some of the comic relief, the asides, some plot interpretations in general seem more Western-world based than sticking to the theme and culture of the film.

In addition, some character revelations are downright bizarre. Without giving anything away, the origins of Monkey and Beetle need not be so dramatic. Their arcs should be more simple. The plot is complicated enough even for an adult. Keeping the story simpler, especially at the conclusion, is imperative to creating a stronger emotional impact. The last thing you want is for your audience to be confused as the climax occurs.

With “Kubo”, Laika has achieved their best film to date however, they have yet to make their great film. “Coraline”, “The Boxtrolls”, “Paranorman” and “Kubo” are all good films, some of them very good films, but none of them are great films. Pixar has great films. Disney has great films. Studio Ghibli has great films. Laika is right on the edge of that truly transformative movie, the movie that is near perfection. All that keeps them back is a flawless story. “Kubo” is close, a very good film and one of the best animated films you’ll ever see, but it is not quite the classic they yearn for yet.

‘Sicario’ a taut thriller

Often lost among all the talk about terrorism, gang violence and mass shootings is the fact that the United States is still fighting a drug war. Billions of federal and state dollars are being used to keep cocaine, heroin and other narcotics off our streets, and it has largely been forgotten in comparison to other policy matters. “Sicario”, directed by Denis Villeneuve, illuminates how that fight is taking place mostly in the shadows and without due process of law.

Idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to a special CIA task force by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) after an IED kills two officers at her crime scene. She finds Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) also on the task force, but something seems off about him. After a confrontation in Juárez against the cartel, Kate discovers that the team is operating outside of the law as they seek to take down the architect of the fiasco, Manuel Diaz.

The film builds off the knowledge that the viewer already understands the roots of the drug trade. It expects you to view it with seasoned eyes. That makes the tension stronger as you know what will happen to naive Kate as you witness the lawlessness and disorder of the region. Chases, gun fights and executions are portrayed expertly. Blunt and del Toro shine. The film is an excellent example of setting the stage, laying the trap and delivering high quality action set pieces. It is not the most original film, but it delivers what it promises.

The film struggles a bit by trying to tie everything into its message of violence leading to more violence and America instigating carnage, but the film needn’t have bothered. The message comes through clear enough through the story itself. The destruction of innocence is a story that will never cease to interest us.