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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The fifth in the MI franchise, Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have elevated the series to James Bond status

MI5PosterDaniel Craig and the new James Bond left a campy-sized hole in the hearts of many an action movie lover. The films became so polished, so good and even so plausible that while no one was clamoring for a throwback to Pierce Brosnan ice palaces and invisible cars, there’s a sense that spy stories could be a little less serious.

Enter “Mission: Impossible”, which five entries in has shed its TV adaptation roots and finally taken Bond’s place on the franchise throne. Previously the “MI” series has been a malleable Tom Cruise vehicle: a Hitchcockian thriller in the hands of genre stylist Brian De Palma, a visual showcase in the hands of John Woo or a dense conspiracy caper in the hands of J.J. Abrams. The fourth film, “Ghost Protocol”, was so delightfully cartoonish (in the hands of none other than Pixar’s Brad Bird making his live-action debut), that even dangling Tom Cruise off the tallest building in the world was not the most outrageous part.

So what is ironically fresh about the latest and fifth entry, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, is that Director Christopher McQuarrie isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The film has not taken on yet another new life in the hands of a new director but has found a comfortable groove that combines the best of all four previous films.

The most notable trait of course must be Tom Cruise, who continues to impress and prove why he’s a bankable star despite never once setting foot in superhero spandex or body armor. In purely Bond fashion, Cruise opens “Rogue Nation” with an incredible set piece detached from the plot of the main film. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt leaps aboard a taxiing plane and hangs on for dear life even after the plane takes off.

And that’s Cruise’s career in a nutshell: trying so hard and still able to hold tight against all odds even as every young teen star takes flight.

Here Cruise’s Ethan Hunt undergoes the Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon” treatment, being suspended from the ceiling and beaten and tortured, only to acrobatically crack some skulls and escape. He’s on the run after coming across an agent he believes to be the head of The Syndicate, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The Syndicate is a shadow organization made to destroy the IMF, and which Hunt believes was behind several global accidents he and the IMF were been unable to avert.

Lane’s frail, crippled tone behind glasses, a German accent and a short haircut make him sound like a man struck by lightning as a child. He’s a convincing ghost, and one of the franchise’s more memorable villains, if still behind Philip Seymour Hoffman from “MI:3”.

But the IMF is also facing a challenge from the CIA and their operation head, played by Alec Baldwin. The CIA is in denial that any Syndicate even exists, and the IMF’s biggest lead is a double agent named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) who they first encounter attempting to murder a German chancellor.

It’s enough spy mumbo jumbo to keep the wheels moving and not too much to overwhelm the story in Macguffins and pseudo-science jargon. And the help of returning cast Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames continue to keep things light and tongue-in-cheek.

Because part of what makes “Rogue Nation” so refreshing, and for that matter all the “Mission: Impossible” movies, is how outlandish and oversized the film’s various set pieces can become, and yet are never once CGI maelstroms. One scene takes place in the backdrop of an opera in Vienna, and to say it’s magnificent, musically edited, and operatic is an understatement. Then there’s an underwater scene where Cruise has to hold his breath for three minutes while avoiding rotating gears and security blocks. It’s preposterous and near impossible to describe or rationalize, but in 2015 it’s more memorable than any horde of disposable robots.

These are traditional action movies after all, but when Bourne has gone gritty, the “Fast and Furious” movies have grown into their own superhero films, and John Wick has gone downright minimal, it’s nice to see that Ethan Hunt’s missions still look impossible.

3 ½ stars

Edge of Tomorrow

“Edge of Tomorrow” is a hugely clever summer blockbuster and a reminder of why Tom Cruise is today’s biggest action star.

“Edge of Tomorrow” starts with scattered flashes of cable news quickly informing us that aliens have invaded the Earth, Europe has been ravished and the rest of humanity is next. Tom Cruise shows up as a talking head on panel after panel and assures the anchors that this latest human assault will be a success.

Why should a sci-fi action movie start this way? Because Director Doug Liman knows that we go through this song and dance over and over again, and every time, nothing seems to get better.

“Edge of Tomorrow” is a smarter and more deeply profound thriller than anyone will give it credit for. Despite the on the face similarities to “Groundhog Day,” (or better yet “Source Code”, which everyone seems to have forgotten) the film has a clever sci-fi conceit that introduces daring wit, drama and romance into a genre in desperate need of more. Continue reading “Edge of Tomorrow”

A Spoiler-filled discussion of Oblivion

“Oblivion” feels criminally underdeveloped with some serious plot holes. Here’s a ranting exploration of all of them.

The Tom Cruise sci-fi “Oblivion” came out almost a year ago now, but somehow it came up on our DVR viewing this past weekend. It’s a post-apocalyptic action movie about two scientists responsible for securing Earth’s surface and repairing drones and resource harvesting equipment after a war between the humans and aliens left the planet inhospitable. The humans won the war, as Cruise helpfully reminds us a number of times. His existence and his mission is called into question when he discovers humans in hypersleep being attacked by the drones he felt were intended to protect them.

It’s a gorgeous film, with just as strong of an aesthetic appeal as Joseph Kosinski’s first film “Tron: Legacy,” and yet it never resembles that film at all. It’s a distinctly modern vision of the future that’s also of its own creation, amplified by the sharp costuming and M83 score.

And yet I see no more point in writing an actual review than you do in reading one at this point. But while this film is not uninteresting on its own, it becomes problematically uninteresting by relying on a number of sci-fi cliches, plot lapses and reliance on visuals rather than substance.

So here are some spoiler-riffic thoughts on “Oblivion.” Spoilers ahead…obviously. Continue reading “A Spoiler-filled discussion of Oblivion”

Jack Reacher

Twists and meaningless McGuffins galore, “Jack Reacher” requires a patience that this pulpy movie doesn’t fully earn.

Look, I get that killing is bad no matter how you go about doing it, but Jack Reacher is a plain thug. Only firing a gun if he’s within point blank range, Reacher prefers to beat the pulp out of lesser opponents, finally getting in a few brutal finishing moves to the crotch, by breaking legs or wrists or finally stomping someone’s face in.

He makes for a disturbingly cold action hero, and the movie that shares his name, “Jack Reacher,” feels much the same.

Blending TV crime procedural talking points with hyper violent vigilante excitement, “Jack Reacher” explores the investigation of a man who went on a sharpshooter killing spree, murdering five random and innocent people, only to frame the attack on an Iraq War veteran discharged for a similar attack. Just before he’s beaten and goes into a coma, he asks for Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), his former military detective, to come and help him.

Based on Lee Child’s series of novels, “Jack Reacher” has a distinctly literary quality for an action film. It’s labored with a heavy backstory and conspiracy nuance, but all of it in arguably the wrong places. We learn an awful lot about the supposed murderer, the female lawyer, investigator and love interest (Rosamund Pike) and her relationship with her father (Richard Jenkins) and the bizarre mastermind without even much of a reason to be in the movie (Werner Herzog being absolutely sinister and iconic while barely lifting an eyebrow), but very little about the mysterious Jack Reacher. Continue reading “Jack Reacher”

Rapid Response: Rain Man

The Best Picture winner “Rain Man” has not aged well, showing its colors as a movie that defines its character by its disability.

“Rain Man” has not aged well. It was revolutionary when it came out in 1988. Few movies were truly talking about disabilities, and few had as ambitious of a performance as Dustin Hoffman’s in portraying a character, let alone someone other than a background supporting character, with autism.

But since then, the culture has evolved in its awareness of disabilities. The best films about disabilities make their characters defined by things other than their afflictions. They show disabilities in everyday life.

Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt is not precisely defined by his disability, but the film uses him as a means for a plot. “Rain Man” is entirely focused on whether or not autism has misconceptions surrounding it and if someone can form a relationship with a person who cannot express their feelings in the same way society understands. It uses him like a trick dog, testing his ability at the card table or with a calculator (now a cliche ripe for parody, along with him riding down the escalator in a suit) only for the payoff that “special people” aren’t just “bad special.” Continue reading “Rapid Response: Rain Man”

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The action set pieces in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” are so cartoonish it’s no surprise Brad Bird of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” fame made it his live action debut.

It is the rare fourth movie capable of revitalizing a franchise by cutting down on the exposition, hyper stylization and melodrama of each installment and delivering wholesome action movie adrenaline. Continue reading “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”