Archive for category Countdown
The movie that taught the world not to fight in the war room.
The Film: A rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) hatches a plan to nuke Russia in preemptive defense of his precious bodily fluids. President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and defected German scientist Dr. Strangelove (all played by Peter Sellers) scramble to call back the bombers, but Ripper’s plan is foolproof and, worse, it’s likely to trigger a Russian doomsday device that will destroy the world. A combined American/Soviet effort brings down most of the planes, but nuclear peace is narrowly averted by the brave efforts of Major TJ “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) personally riding a bomb down to its target. As the leaders await the end, they hatch rival plans to become the undisputed world power of underground bomb shelters.
The Production: The early 1960s was a weird time. The end of the human race never seemed closer than it did in the first few years of the decade, and yet new sexual and civil freedoms brought hope to young people who had otherwise lived their lives ducking and covering in school hallways. In the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kubrick—riding the surprise success of his supposedly toxic project, Lolita—acquired the rights to the novel Red Alert by Peter George, a serious thriller about the flaws inherent in automated nuclear war. Unfortunately, Kubrick ran into problems adapting the screenplay; the situation was too damn absurd.
Kubrick felt that the real Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction was, to put it mildly, incredibly stupid, so he shifted Red Alert onto an entirely different track, where it became a dark satire. Columbia Pictures, eager to stay in the Kubrick business but nervous about the film’s tone, agreed to handle the picture only if Kubrick could convince Peter Sellers to play the leads—all of them (the studio believed Sellers had been the major draw for Lolita.) Sellers signed on to play four roles, but he had to abandon the part of Major Kong when he sprained his ankle and couldn’t fit in the pilot’s seat. Slim Pickens took over.
President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas delayed Dr. Strangelove for months and hindered its box office. Since its release, however, Strangelove has been universally embraced by frikkin’ everybody. Many (including this writer) consider Strangelove to be Kubrick’s best film and possibly one of the greatest films of the last ever. And he did it without the pie fight finale.
Best Moment: Peter Sellers made his millions playing lunatics—there’s a reason this film is called Dr. Strangelove and not Lionel Mandrake—but the actor spent much of his career trying to squash this stereotype and find success as a complete performer, not just as a living cartoon. Sellers was an equally talented straight man, as he proves in his phone call to the unseen (and drunk) Russian premier. This is probably one of the funniest scenes in all the movies.
Lasting Impact: Please. Dr. Strangelove cast the nuclear conflict in a new light and may have played some small part in shifting the conversation away from the saber-rattling of the Red Scare and towards the dramatic peace movement of the late 60s. On a pure movie level, Strangelove invented its own damn genre. Every satirical war movie, from Canadian Bacon to Wag the Dog, to War, Inc., has been slapped with the label of “the new Dr. Strangelove,” which of course they aren’t. The film’s shadow is very wide.
Overall: As we’ve discussed, Stanley Kubrick took flak throughout his career for being a fairly bloodless character. His best films came from a place of clinical curiosity, little experiments where he ran his characters through twisted mazes to see how far they’d go for some tiny piece of happiness. Films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange were not strange digressions, but close approximations of how Kubrick really saw the world. Strangelove is different and unlike anything else in Kubrick’s catalog, and not just because it’s hilarious. Not at all. It’s furious.
Great comedy comes from anger, and there is hardly an angrier film anywhere than Dr. Strangelove. The film is a plea from the peasants for some sign of sanity at the top. I don’t think the film’s proximity to the Cuban Missile Crisis can be overstated. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the entire world was hung up between two countries seemingly willing to wipe billions of people from the map rather than lose face in front of the world. Sure, each side made the usual case about white hats and black hats, and we can debate politics forever, but ultimately the planet came within a “Press A” of snuffing out over, basically, a sticky public relations crisis. Two years later, Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is on screen whining about a “mine shaft gap.”
So, assuming he’s the “I” in the subtitle, how did Kubrick learn to love the bomb? I think Kubrick decided that, hell, if the world can be taken to the very brink by posturing and bravado, then why not give up your sanity and, like Major Kong, enjoy the ride? This is a movie about grown men measuring their members and calling it war. I mentioned Turgidson above, definitely my favorite character in the film not played by Peter Sellers (who was brilliant in all three of his roles). Observe the way Turgidson squirms and fidgets while President Merkin Muffley (with two names referring, of course, to vaginas) works to call off the war that Ripper started. Turgidson humors the president the same way a football coach might wince at a child asking why he doesn’t throw it at the goal line on every play.
Or what about Ripper, a general willing to go to war because of fluoride in our drinking water, clearly a communist plot to destroy our bodies from within. We laugh now at Kubrick’s absurd invention, forgetting that this was a totally real thing that people thought. And what was the role of women in this war? I mentioned the onset of new sexual and cultural freedoms in the 60s, but it hadn’t yet hit the war room. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only woman in the film is seen in a bikini, with no thoughts or role of her own except to relay information between two men.
Kubrick’s grand finale was intended to be a gigantic pie fight, but I think that may have been a bit too on the nose (why spend the money on all these pies if we’re not going to throw them!?) As it is, he settled for a romantically bittersweet ending in which the bomb, the true protagonist of the film, wins the day.
Kubrick never returned to broad comedy. It’s as if dealing with these misfits, facing his dark opinion of human nature, changed him. After Strangelove, his films became increasingly detached, kicking off the second half of his legendary career, from 2001 all the way to the alien and alienating Eyes Wide Shut. Did he burn out his funny bone? Or did confronting these clowns, outsized avatars of the worst of our instincts, push Kubrick that much further away? If there is any truth behind Strangelove’s satire, are we even worth saving? With a planet like this, who could blame Kubrick for falling in love with the end of the world?
The Stanley Kubrick Project
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire
“He who laughs last, laughs longest.” – Redmond Barry
The Film: The saga of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), born poor and with delusions of nobility, begins with a botched duel over a woman and an escape to avoid prosecution. From there, Barry spends the following years flitting about Europe and getting involved in matters well above his competency. He deserts two wars, spies for the enemy, and eventually marries into wealth after wooing Lady Lyndon, the wife of a dead man he fleeced at cards. His rise is followed by the inevitable fall as Barry wastes his wife’s fortune on women, status symbols, and the chance at a permanent title.
And that title is Hunk of the Month.
None of this sits well with Barry’s stepson, Lord Bullingdon, who waits for Barry to hit his lowest point before striking. Bullingdon defeats Barry in a duel and forces Barry’s exile, where he lives out his days in poverty, sustained by a small annual allowance from his wife, who allows herself only a small moment of pause each year before signing.
The Production: If there is one unmade Kubrick project that matters, one lost film (not eventually finished by Steven Spielberg) that Kubrick nuts spend restless nights dreaming about, it’s Napoleon. Kubrick spent the early 1970s painstakingly cataloging the life of the French dictator and collecting thousands of photos and historical notes in a quest so frikkin’ epic that a book simply about the search sells for more than a used car.
I can make people stand around and stare at each other for a mere fraction of that price.
The collapse of Napoleon isn’t a mystery. The same thing happened to that film as happens to so many. The money disappeared, a competing film ramped up, and Kubrick gave up, finding himself the sudden owner of enough wasted research to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault. Legend states that Kubrick read dozens of novels set in the same time period until he came across William Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon. This legend is kinder than my preferred theory, where Kubrick snatches a random novel from the history section and flings it at his producer while screaming “Fine! This one!”
Everyone knows the story about Kubrick using a rare NASA-owned lens to film the movie using only natural light, but this is a bit of movie legend. There are scenes lit naturally with candlelight, and a NASA lens made this possible, but the vast majority of the film was shot with old-fashioned studio lighting, arranged to mimic the real stuff.
Best Moment: Barry Lyndon is not a passionate movie, which is a little bit like saying that Betty White sort of knows her way around a joke. One of Kubrick’s fascinations, summed up in this brilliant article by Matt Cale, is that rituals are the death of emotion; by assigning a pattern to an action, we can detach ourselves emotionally from it. Well, the people that inhabit Barry Lyndon are drowning in the familiar. There is hardly an action, even war, that the nobility cannot make rote and routine with just a small bit of pomp and a stiff upper lip. Lady Lyndon ignores painful memories by signing checks. A highwayman politely explains the procedure to his victim. Even courtly romance is no more than an applied bit of flattery and a well-timed gift. Love would be so gauche.
This climactic scene is the movie’s best and exposes its comedy agenda.
Lord Bullingdon has challenged Barry Lyndon to a duel to reclaim the family’s honor and the result is a laughable, methodical charade of what is, essentially, a final gunfight. By this point, Barry has lost everything, including his will to fight back, but custom insists. It’s an ironic companion piece to the hot-headed duel that began Barry’s adventure in the first place. After all his climbing and struggling, Barry just wants it over with.
Lasting Impact: One of the few hints of legitimacy in Ryan O’Neal’s brief career as a movie star. Beyond that, Barry Lyndon seemed destined for obscurity following its lukewarm release, but home video and sustained interest in Kubrick’s work have slowly raised the film’s reputation. It’s still one of Kubrick’s lesser seen works, but it has just as many rabid fans as it has critics. Plus, the bit of myth about the natural lighting has done wonders for Kubrick’s legend as an exacting visionary madman.
Overall: I’ve been around the block with this movie since I first found it while devouring Kubrick discs in the wake of a life-changing 70mm screening of 2001. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t get it. Lyndon is a movie mostly about inaction. The main character, by design, is a worthless puffball played (again, I’m convinced, by design) by an actor with an empty bucket where his charisma should be. Barry Lyndon makes meaningful events seem as if they aren’t; lives are altered and wrecked over tumultuous decades, but it’s all so plain and flat that I crawled the walls until the film ended.
And yet, months later, I went back for more. This time, my girlfriend walked into the room about halfway through, saw Barry Lyndon on my TV, and nearly walked out again. Such is its power to bore. Now, after four viewings and counting, I believe I get Barry Lyndon, but I’m still not sure I like it very much.
Here, in the action highlight of the film, she’s just about to look up.
The film is as much about Barry’s society as it is about Barry himself. The film portrays a group of people so stuck up their own back ends that they allow a useless cad to bluff and marry his way into their club just because he knows how. Play the game well enough, my son, and you can join the league. There is no mistaking Kubrick’s contempt for Barry, his supporting cast, or for the nobility at large. We’re meant to laugh and howl at these fools just as Kubrick did. It’s a film with no protagonist, like 2001 and Strangelove before it.
Or possibly, that moustache is the protagonist.
In those films, however, at least there’s something to root for. It can be argued that the bomb is the hero of Strangelove; humanity’s will to survive might be the hero of 2001. But what is there to root for in Lyndon? I can think of nothing, absolutely nothing, except for Barry’s much-deserved demise, which the film’s narrator assures us will come. In the meantime, we’re invited to look at this fool on the pedestal and help throw rocks at him until he falls. Feel-good cinema, it ain’t.
The images are why you watch. Kubrick and director of photography John Alcott produce career best work here and Alcott received an Oscar for his trouble and for his work with the innovative lens. The movie is nothing but gorgeous, and the spread of HD TVs make a compelling argument to watch. But with an agenda as poisonous as Barry Lyndon‘s, not many would want to. And, while I appreciate the film on its own merits, I can hardly blame them.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire
You know the jokes people make about James Bond? Well, he’s heard them too.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Pierce Brosnan
SETUP: Bond and his partner Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) invade a Russian chemical plant during the cold war, but only Bond survives to complete the mission. Years later, Bond’s interest in a suspicious woman named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) leads him to a stolen helicopter and a Russian doomsday weapon code-named “Goldeneye.” These scenes are supposedly unconnected.
BUT IN REALITY: These scenes are totally connected. Goldeneye is in the possession of Onatopp’s boss, Janus, an arms dealer descended from Lienz Cossacks, Russians betrayed by the British and executed by Stalin after World War II. Bond tracks Janus and discovers his true identity: Alec Trevelyan. The former agent plans to unleash the Goldeneye on London for profit and revenge, but Bond puts a stop to it and promptly drops Alec from his own satellite.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Bond escaped the Russian plant by setting off explosive charges earlier than expected. It worked for Bond, but not so much for Alec. The defecting agent thought he had six minutes to fake his death, but instead had only three. The result was a bomb blast to the face and a healthy, villainous dose of scar tissue.
THE MUSCLE: Xenia Onatopp kills with sex or, specifically, with her iron vice thighs during sex. But say you’re feeling adventurous and think, hey, you’ll just knock her into some walls or something and that’ll show her. Well, she’s also a masochist and your struggling is just going to encourage her. Bond never takes that chance and she dies from sudden impact with a tree.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) is a Russian computer programmer, and the sole survivor of the Goldeneye theft. She’s beautiful, of course, but surprisingly capable as far as Bond Girls tend to go, a trend that would continue from the 90s to the present day. She’s also brash, pushy, and not afraid to call the men in the room on their bullshit. I’m a fan.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: As with the Timothy Dalton transition, the film gives Brosnan a traditional scene down in Q lab, complete with Super Dave-style sight gags in the background. The movie is light on gadgets, but Q still provides a new BMW, a leather belt containing rappelling wire, and a ballpoint pen grenade that features prominently in the finale.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Xenia. Onatopp. Or maybe the cartoonish hacker character played by Alan Cumming that dies in a Tex Avery moment, quick frozen by a burst coolant pipe.
Or maybe it’s Xenia. Onatopp.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “The writing’s on the wall,” spoken moments after the pen grenade explodes. It’s corny, but there wasn’t a lot of gold in this film and this line made Q laugh, so what the hell?
WORTH MENTIONING: “Goldeneye” is the name of Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica where he wrote most of the Bond novels and short stories… Minnie Driver has a tiny cameo in the film as a tone deaf Russian singer… For the first time, we hear what happened to Bond’s parents as Alec mentions the climbing accident that took their lives. Years later, continuity crisis is narrowly averted when Sean Connery chose not to appear as James Bond’s father in Die Another Day as had been rumored.
OVERALL: Reconciling the jingoistic, adolescent history of James Bond with an audience increasingly concerned with social and political responsibility, while still making sure enough things go boom, is one hell of a juggling act, but Goldeneye never drops it. In my opinion, the film is a minor miracle. It reinvigorated the franchise back before “reboot” was a Hollywood buzz term, and it successfully launched Pierce Brosnan as the Bond for the 90s generation. And it did so behind a shockingly self-loathing screenplay.
Wrong or right, the mid 90s was a time of reevaluation on the globe, in the workplace, in the bedroom, everywhere. The Cold War had finally thawed and with it the unspoken edict that we had to maintain the social contract exactly as our parents had kept it, lest we show those damn Commies the gap in our collective resolve. The dreaded political correctness crept into the conversation, and then dominated it. No more meaningless sex, no more “charming” workplace flirtations, no more wrong-headed mistreatment of minorities or foreign cultures, and for god’s sake, put away the stick when talking about overseas policy.
What’s a guy like James Bond to do?
Serious conversation preceded the release of Goldeneye about what role James Bond played, if any, in the modern landscape. Six years and a Soviet Empire had passed since the character had been seen on screen, and some argued that it was time to let the venerable spy finally retire. James Bond was the past.
The Goldeneye screenplay, churned out by a small army of writers and brought to the screen by workman director Martin Campbell, faced these critics head on in a movie that’s often celebratory and more often apologetic. Moneypenny calls Bond on his sexual harrassment. His new boss (*gasp* a woman!) calls him a misogynistic dinosaur. His contacts laugh at him for staying with MI6 when he could earn much more as a freelance player in the new global climate. He’s even held at gunpoint by the villain in an attempt to coerce his female lead. The whole thing plays like James Bond’s Very Bad Day.
A centerpiece scene between Bond and Trevelyan tips the film’s real agenda. Alec, still masquerading as Janus, agrees to meet Bond and chooses a particularly meaningful spot, a graveyard for Soviet icons. Statues of Lenin and Stalin lie scattered about, forgotten and useless. Here Alec lays out his motivation for betraying his country, one relic to another. He explains how he risked his life to topple regimes, only to be told later that it was all for nothing. Alec wants revenge and money and all the usual perks, but mostly he just can’t accept the world changing without his permission. Bond doesn’t have that problem. Despite all the tremors in Bond’s world, he’s still the same character he’s always been, unflinching. He won’t change, can’t change, but he can protect us from people like Alec who don’t want to accept the world on its own terms. Alec needs to remake his environment. Bond has no such problem. If he doesn’t quite adapt, he certainly endures.
Alec asks Bond if “all those vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or if you’ve found comfort in the arms of all those willing women for the dead ones you failed to protect.” Bond stays the same, lonely and haunted, so that the rest of us don’t have to.
A hawkish cop out? I don’t think so, but we can debate if you like. At the least it’s a point of view, an original thought in a franchise that had been largely on auto-pilot since sometime before the Beatles rocked Ed Sullivan. Pierce Brosnan would go on to make three more Bond movies, none of them quite as remarkable as his first. Martin Campbell would return to the franchise many years later for another restart, another undisputed classic.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill
It’s either 1987 or 1988. In any case, I’m very young. My parents, older sister, and one of my sister’s friends are watching a movie on TV. The music is urgent and tense. Marines pan flashlights down burned, darkened corridors. A girl about my age scurries through the debris. The marines rescue her. “It won’t make any difference,” she says. Before I know what’s happening, the marines are in a boiler room. Human eyes open from within a sticky cocoon. Her chest lurches and she pleads for death.
“Go to bed!” I’m ushered out of the room so rapidly that I know the movie is on the edge of something great. As I pass the recliner on the way to the hall, I sneak a peek around it, just in time to see a bloody, screaming creature explode from the woman’s rib cage.
I outrace Mom to my bedroom.
The next morning, I quizzed my sister over breakfast. “What happened to that robot guy?”
“Cut in half.”
“What about that lady soldier with the bandana?”
“She blew herself up.”
Cut in half? She blew herself up? WHOA.
I’d discovered James Cameron years before I knew his name.
James Cameron owned action films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, then reached his peak with the love story Titanic, a film he conceived, researched, wrote, directed, and even hand-modeled for. The film, once expected to be a surefire bomb, reaped almost two billion dollars in worldwide box office, and dominated at the Academy Awards where Cameron proclaimed himself – with good reason – the king of the world. Film nerds waited to see what he’d do next.
A decade later, we’re still waiting. As the countdown to his new film, Avatar, stretches ever longer, questions surround it – has James Cameron been gone too long? Does he still have it? Can any new film, no matter how cool and experimental, possibly live up to this wait?
To guess the man’s future, however, we must look into his past. James Cameron is the next Hollywood Project.
Name: James Francis Cameron
Birth: 8/16/1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada.
Parents: Phillip Cameron (electrical engineer) and Shirley Cameron (artist/nurse)
Life: Cameron grew up in Ontario and showed early skill in painting, building, and photography. His parents were supportive of his talents, arranging art exhibits and supplying him with a 16mm camera and film. In his late teens, the family moved to Fullerton, California, where Cameron, torn between his passions in science and art, chose to study physics. Sensing a mistake, Cameron dropped out of courses and spent time driving trucks for the local school system while developing his skills in screenwriting and supporting his waitress wife, Sharon. The release of a new science-fiction epic, Star Wars, had a profound effect on Cameron. He became a regular at the library for the University of Southern California, devouring any and all theory on filmmaking and the sciences involved in it. He created a short film as a calling card and presented it to legendary B-picture director Roger Corman, who immediately put him to work.
Cameron is currently in his fifth marriage, and is the father of four children.
Career: Cameron apprenticed in Roger Corman’s infamous factory, working the special effects departments for such films as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror. His intelligence and enthusiasm pushed him quickly up the ladder. One legend has Cameron rigging a power line into a fake, maggoty arm so the bugs would writhe on his cue, just as important producers wandered by to see it. He finally received his directing break with Piranha II: The Spawning, then followed with The Terminator, Aliens, and the screenplay for Rambo II. Each became a monster success (minus the Piranha one), and Cameron was suddenly Hollywood’s go-to action/sci-fi prodigy. Cameron went on to direct some of the biggest action hits of the next 15 years, culminating in the legendary success of Titanic, which netted him a Best Director Oscar. Since then, Cameron’s career has gone low-key, focused on documentaries and TV specials. Cameron is finally returning to narrative film in 2009 with the 3D alien saga, Avatar.
Trademarks: Cameron’s films have a recurring theme — acknowledged by the director — of technology (particularly nuclear tech), and the benefits and dangers inherent in it. His films tend to feature strong female characters in lead roles. He often uses the ocean as a setting, and likes to use dream sequences to reveal a character’s fears.
Behind the camera, Cameron is known for his sometimes volatile temperament and has a reputation as a perfectionist. His films often feature an innovation or new technology in a prominent role.
Number of Eligible Films: 8
Remarks: I don’t want to turn these articles into Psych 101, but sometimes it can’t be helped. If there’s a theme that jumps out from the life and career of James Cameron, it’s that bit about him being a perfectionist. As we’ll see throughout the countdown, Cameron is often the subject of his crew’s horror stories. He drives his employees to insane lengths, sometimes, in the pursuit of a shot or a schedule. He almost always writes his own scripts. For the love of– he’s been married five times. I’m not going to dwell on his private life, but come on. It’s as if he’s been waging a quest for the perfect woman, perhaps the same strong woman that drives so many of his films.
And how perfect are his parents? If yellow and red make orange, then an engineer and an artist make a filmmaker. In his work, Cameron straddles the line between the science of what he’s doing and the art of it. His balance in both is the reason for his tremendous success.
(Note: The James Cameron Project is complete. To check out the Project, please enjoy the links below.)
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss