Lion

6-year-old Sunny Pawar carries Garth Davis’s observant, anecdotal film on his tiny back.

Lion PosterSaroo Brierly got separated from his family in India when he was just a boy and spent his whole childhood raised in Australia by a foster family. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he used Google to trace down a past he could hardly recall and a home he didn’t know would still be there.

What makes “Lion” special is that it shows that Saroo’s story isn’t entirely unique. It spends its first hour immersed in young Saroo’s perspective. It observantly and anecdotally illustrates the livelihood of poverty-stricken children across India. Saroo’s story feels profound not only because of the journey toward a tearful reunion, but because it devotes so much time at the eye level of this young boy. Continue reading “Lion”

Side by Side: Lolita (1962) and Eyes Wide Shut

Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita” are the two most sexual movies in his filmography. How do they stack up?

eyes-wide-shut-KidmanThe opening shots of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” are a tease. Nicole Kidman strips off her slinky black dress in a quick moment of voyeurism and sexuality. A strangely lilting waltz plays over the top, and Kubrick drops us not into a boudoir or a ravishing sex scene but the mundane act of a married couple getting ready for a night out. But the real tease comes in its opening sequence amid something of a slice of heaven. The opulent party at the home of Victor Zeigler (Sydney Pollack) is bathed in blinding white light and a soothing haze lingers over the whole room. Kubrick catches the moment with a lingering focus, slowly observing and backtracking his camera into the gleam.

Kubrick’s “Lolita” opens with two teases of its own. The first is an iconic one a good 20 minutes deep, in which Prof. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) gets his first look at the underage vixen that is Lolita (Sue Lyon), perched languidly in a sun bathing hat, sunglasses and a frilly bikini. The shot is as deceptively alluring as Kidman’s. But the real tease is the opening sequence in which Humbert enters into the sprawling mansion of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), the site of a long deserted orgy. Quilty’s cluttered home of paintings, pianos and ping pong tables looks like it could belong to Charles Foster Kane. He even drops a quick line about being Spartacus, this being the movie Kubrick made following his ancient war epic. But the hint of glamour and sense of building tension seen here does not begin to set the tone for the remainder of “Lolita”.

“Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita” are the two most sexual films in Kubrick’s filmography. There’s no sexuality in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or in “The Shining”. There’s plenty of nudity in “A Clockwork Orange” but none of the “‘ole in and out” is really about sex. And any sexual tension found in “Spartacus” may be purely accidental.

What’s remarkable is how uninterested he is in sexuality in both “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita”, how he uses the tantalizing possibilities as a diversion. “Eyes Wide Shut” was billed as a steamy sex romance between Hollywood’s then biggest power couple, but Kubrick uses orgies, prostitution, and bedroom pillow talk to stage an elaborate metaphor about fidelity. Similarly, “Lolita” was billed as the movie that simply could not have been made, one so scandalous in its subject matter, that how could it ever pass censors? And yet the film is often a farce, focused on the mundane and the ordinary slices of marriage and suburbia over the scandal.

Kubrick may be most interested in how dangerous sexuality can be. The first truly provocative sexual scene in “Eyes Wide Shut” involves Tom Cruise as Dr. Bill Harford tending to Zeigler in one of his many “house calls”. A ravishing model type is completely nude and passed out in a chair after having done too many drugs. But the scene is tame. Cruise plays everything so cool and professional, calm and reassuring that he saps the moment of its sexuality.

As for Humbert Humbert, he so quickly allows sexual desire for Lolita to warp his mind, to the point that he’s punished for even entertaining such thoughts. He’s now married to the shrill, needy and pitiful Charlotte (Shelley Winters), only to realize that Charlotte has no intention of bringing Lolita back into their lives. The whole point of this sham marriage was to remain close to Lolita, and when that’s in jeopardy he begins conceiving “the perfect murder”. Just that stray thought causes him to drop his guard, allowing Charlotte to find his diary and secret affections for her daughter.

EyesWideShut3

There’s a spiritual sensation to sex in each of Kubrick’s films as well. “Eyes Wide Shut” is very clearly something of an existential journey. Cruise’s Bill is an affluent figure dragged through set pieces that are luxurious, grounded, dreamy, seedy, erotic, and plain bizarre. Each seems detached from the other, and Kubrick has erased a strong sense of time that would unify them. What’s more, we’re kept in the dark as much as Bill is. His keyboard playing friend hints to him about some of the most beautiful women he’s ever laid eyes on, but as he walks into that ancient, foreboding mansion, Kubrick doesn’t tease us as to what to really expect there. We’re going in dark, and when the pagan ritual and orgy does arrive, we’re made into spectators. Only a handful of films manage this much nudity and sex and feel completely sterile.

That aspect of course was what turned off so many critics to “Eyes Wide Shut” upon its release. It’s a movie with no heat, one wrote, but then Kubrick was always polarizing. Everything about the movie is a diversion away from sex, and given Bill’s many opportunities and temptations, he never succumbs. The orgy and everything in between is a stigma for his own fears and insecurities about his wife and marriage. The heat then is in the tension and conspiracy, how temptations may come back to punish Bill.

lolita2

Humbert’s journey is less spiritual, but still profound. Kubrick uses Lolita and Quilty to toy with him, to drive him to madness. Humbert starts by dancing around the news of Charlotte’s death and how to best approach Lolita, but she can play coy and read him like a book. Her dialogue, all carefully within Production Code standards, toes the line between daughterly affection and something more lewd. Once they’ve relocated to Ohio, their affair gets a little less subtle, and even the neighbors begin to pick up on it. Soon Humbert’s hapless etiquette and politeness make him look tone deaf and alien. He’s overprotective and hyper attentive to Lolita in exactly the way she demands, but then she’ll never be satisfied, forever toying and always disappointed. By the end Humbert has grown into a lunatic, paranoid and crazy-eyed at even being away from her. Kubrick makes this all happen in economic one-takes, like when Quilty obsessively calls Humbert and the phone’s cord stretches across the room like a noose.

And for movies so largely about sexuality, they each end on a frigid note. Zeigler brings Bill into his billiard room to carefully explain out everything that’s happened over the last 24 hours. When Humbert and Lolita meet again after years of being apart, she plainly explains she’s married, pregnant, and even has glasses that make her look remarkably like her mother.

Dramatically, both of these scenes are something of a let-down, or an anti-climax. Kubrick has tied up all the loose ends in a way that’s largely less interesting than everything building up to them in either film. And yet these endings are by design. They remind of the after-effects of sex, the letdown that occurs outside of the moment.

Cruise and Mason are both weirdly perfect casting choices. Mason is so hapless and bland as Humbert, and you can see him straining in just about every moment to tolerate Charlotte and her friends. He gets some broad strokes of physical comedy as he so delicately and quietly tries to set up a rollaway cot in his hotel room while Lolita is sleeping. He never seems comfortable in his own shoes, and Kubrick is able to mold him like clay in his hand.

EyesWideShut

Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut” is something of a revelation. Here is an actor who tries so hard in every role to be liked, who gives his all and never melts into the role, namely because he’s Tom friggin’ Cruise. Kubrick isn’t blind to Cruise’s celebrity, and the performance he elicits from Cruise forces him to be a blank slate and a pretty face. Cruise is so cool and confident with all the women he encounters and all the opulence and luxury he places along his spiritual journey, but you can see him squirming. You can see how thoughts of his wife’s illusory betrayal – which he imagines in hazy, black and white flashbacks – constantly weigh him down as he tries to keep a straight face.

The one performance in “Lolita” that doesn’t really fit into “Eyes Wide Shut’s” equation is Peter Sellers as Quilty. Sellers is so good in every moment he’s on screen. It rivals his work on Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, but here he gets to play so many more characters and in so many different ranges. First he’s the effete and cultured dramatist creating sparks with the hotel’s bellhop and admiring the “lilting, lyrical” quality of Lolita’s name, all the while keeping a demonic looking muse in tow who never speaks a word. Then he gets the opportunity to turn in something of a Brando impression, sheepishly rattling off friendly pleasantries as a way of toying with Humbert’s mind. He displays a remarkable cadence in every word he says. Just watch him blinking and fiddling with his glasses; even Kubrick can’t look away.

All these performers are hot commodities in movies that have no desire for their sex appeal. Their casting is as much a tease as Nicole Kidman’s back, and though it’s not sexy, it’s remarkably scandalous.

EyesWideShut-Kidman2

Stoker

“Stoker” is a twisted, perverse thriller of sinister and sexual undertones all accomplished through precise filmmaking.

The best scene in Chan-wook Park’s “Stoker” is not one of its several murders or Hitchcockian set pieces or psychotic outbursts. It’s a piano duet between its two leads, the timid teenager India and her creepy, suspicious uncle Charlie.

She starts, and he joins in, silently squeezing his way onto a cramped piano bench. They play with speed and beauty, stealing glances at one another when not focusing on the keys. Suddenly, he crosses her body to reach the high octave, and the sexual tension is palpable as the music continues. Considering their relationship, it’s a twisted, perverse sensation that turns out to be a dream sequence, but it begins to hint at the tingling feelings of something worse than naughty, and “Stoker” does so with the precision of a ticking metronome.

“Stoker” is the first English film from Director Park, whose “Oldboy” is a recent cult classic that currently sits at #83 on the IMDB Top 250 and is being remade this year by Spike Lee. His violent legacy runs deep, and although “Stoker” minimizes on some of the bloodshed, it’s effortlessly textured with horror movie staples and Hitchcock set pieces. A butcher’s knife, garden shears, an ominous person-long freezer in a dark cellar and a hazy, flickering chandelier lamp paint a familiarly sinister world.

Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” serves as inspiration on a narrative level as well. On India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) 17th birthday, her father is tragically killed in a car wreck. At the funeral, she meets her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a perpetually smiling, unblinking young man with an attractive face and disarming voice. Immediately something rubs the timid, spiteful, skinny and goth India the wrong way, more so because her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) has gotten over husband’s death a bit too quickly with Charlie’s arrival. Coinciding with his arrival, a housekeeper and visiting relative suddenly vanish, and India slowly sinks into even more vicious behavior. Continue reading “Stoker”

Off the Red Carpet: Week of 12/12 – 12/19

‘Tis the awards season for many lists and nominations. I’ve had a lot of fun doing this column, but this is probably my last of this sort. Next week I’ll likely take off because of the holiday, and the following week I’ll put together an article of my final Oscar predictions, charting the ups and downs of certain films based on the preliminary predictions I’ve made each week since.

This is the point when most Oscar bloggers say that all that’s left are the Oscars. The Best of lists have started trickling out, the Golden Globes have been named and subsequently ignored and all the movies have been seen. You and I both know that last bit isn’t true, because I’ll likely miss “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Amour,” “On the Road,” “Not Fade Away,” “Searching for Sugarman,” “Rust and Bone,” “How to Survive a Plague,” “The House I Live In” and “The Gatekeepers” and “West of Memphis” before the year is out, and God knows I’m trying much harder than you to see these.

But nevertheless, I’ll cobble together a Best of the Year list myself along with some other fun features in the next few days. So for the last time, here’s this week’s roundup.

Golden Globe Nominations Announced

The Golden Globes have a tendency to be plain embarrassing. They’ll nominate something “The Tourist” to get Johnny Depp in attendance, and their ridiculous split between drama and comedy or musical means that nothing gets snubbed, except of course for things that are actually interesting. Last Thursday, “Lincoln” led the pack with seven nominations, and the only real surprise of a nomination were the multiple for “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” Okay, whatever, we’ll let you have that one.

Scott Feinberg’s analysis is by the far the best of them, mentioning what a big deal it is to see Nicole Kidman, Rachel Weisz, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Richard Gere, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio, although he probably lends a little more weight to the Globes than I do. The biggest, yet predictable omissions included “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Amour.”

What really piqued my interest in Feinberg’s analysis was one statistic that said people who are nominated for a SAG award, Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe all go on to an Oscar nomination, and he’s got a list of five in the Best Actor race already. Those names are Bradley Cooper, Daniel Day-Lewis, John Hawkes, Hugh Jackman and Denzel Washington. You tell me who’s missing. (Full list via The Race)

Hair and Makeup Category Shortlisted

Here’s the list of the seven films advancing in the newly revised Makeup category that now also includes work for hair dressing.

“Hitchcock”
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”
“Les Misérables”
“Lincoln”
“Looper”
“Men in Black 3”
“Snow White and the Huntsman”

The two big snubs here are “Cloud Atlas” and “Holy Motors,” both of which involve characters going through multiple performances and appearances, and “Holy Motors” especially calls attention to its makeup. I also would’ve liked to see “The Impossible” on this list for the amount of blood stained clothes and Naomi Watts looking ghastly that’s in that movie. (via Oscars.com)

ZeroDarkThirty

“Zero Dark Thirty” selected by Chicago Film Critics

Hailing from Chicago myself (I didn’t vote. Don’t flatter yourself), I always find these interesting. Announced on Monday, the Chicago critics selected “Zero Dark Thirty” as their winner for Best Picture while granting it four other awards. “The Master” came in second with four awards. This is an interesting list, one that goes against the grain a tiny bit by selecting “The Invisible War” as Best Doc and “ParaNorman” as Best Animated. The full list of winners is below. (Full list of nominees via CFCA website)

Best Picture – Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director – Kathryn Bigelow

Best Actor – Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress – Jessica Chastain

Best Supporting Actor – Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Best Supporting Actress – Amy Adams

Best Original Screenplay – Zero Dark Thirty

Best Adapted Screenplay – Lincoln

Best Foreign Language Film – Amour

Best Documentary – The Invisible War

Best Animated Feature – ParaNorman

Best Cinematography – The Master

Best Original Score – The Master

Best Art Direction – Moonrise Kingdom

Best Editing – Zero Dark Thirty

Most Promising Performer – Quvenzhane Wallis

Most Promising Filmmaker – Benh Zeitlin

New York Times Best of the Year Lists

If the New York Times sounds off on anything it’s a big deal, but what I loved about A.O. Scott’s and Manohla Dargis’s lists was the optimism brimming from them about the state of cinema, all this coming from a year where people have been mostly negative. Dargis didn’t rank hers, but Scott picked 25. They’re must-reads. (Dargis’s list and Scott’s list via NYT.com)

Manohla Dargis

Amour

The Deep Blue Sea

The Gatekeepers

Holy Motors

Moonrise Kingdom

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Searching for Sugarman

Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

A.O. Scott

1. Amour

2. Lincoln

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

4. Footnote

5. The Master

6. Zero Dark Thirty

7. Django Unchained

8. Goodbye, First Love

9. Neighboring Sounds

10. The Grey

holy-motors-05

New consensus emerges from critic polls

I feel Metacritic’s aggregation is fairly comprehensive in terms of evaluating the best movie of the year, but both Indiewire and Village Voice conducted their own critics polls and selected “Holy Motors” and “The Master” respectfully. It’s almost funny considering that it’s likely neither of those will be nominated for Best Picture (but we’ll hold out for “The Master.”) and the other consensus title, “Zero Dark Thirty,” may just win Best Picture. Indiewire also did a cut and dry determination of what the Oscar nominees would be based on their votes, and of the 10 Best Picture nominees, they selected six potential Oscar nominees. Here are the individual critic poll Top 10 lists:

Indiewire

  1. Holy Motors
  2. The Master
  3. Zero Dark Thirty
  4. Amour
  5. This is Not a Film
  6. Moonrise Kingdom
  7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  9. The Turin Horse
  10. Lincoln

Village Voice

  1. The Master
  2. Zero Dark Thirty
  3. Holy Motors
  4. Moonrise Kingdom
  5. This is Not a Film
  6. Amour
  7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  8. The Turin Horse
  9. Lincoln
  10. Tabu

Continue reading “Off the Red Carpet: Week of 12/12 – 12/19”