Category Archives: ★★★★

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

2001: A Space Odyssey has five distinct parts–the “Dawn of Man” sequence, then the space station and moon visit, then the main action before the intermission, then the main action after the intermission, then the “Jupiter” sequence. The prehistoric sequence, where an advanced alien device puts the vegetarian, prey-to-carnivores missing links on track to become carnivorous and murderous human beings. Given the setting and characters, it’s no surprise Kubrick changes style a bit when he gets to the future. 2001 starts with a shot of the planets aligning, then goes to the missing links. Kubrick visibly changes the film’s presumable trajectory. The prehistoric stop-off.

That sequence is done in vignettes, the first time editor Ray Lovejoy gets to astound. Kubrick characterizes the apes, but never anthropomorphizes them. The film establishes their regular lives–bickering with boars for plants, bickering with other tribes for water, getting killed off by hungry big cats. Kubrick and Lovejoy hold each shot just long enough. Kubrick establishes mood, then reveals the narrative. But he never gets overenthusiastic for big events; even with 2001’s always magnificent sometimes dramatic choice of music, the visual pacing of the film never changes. The music accompanies, never dictates (which leads to some interesting effects in the second section).

That second section follows scientist, bureaucrat, and questionably dedicated father William Sylvester to the moon. Lots of beautiful filmmaking here, the music against the exquisite, ageless, and all around perfect special effects sequences. Spaceships, space stations, the Earth, the moon. It’s magnificent. It’s also where Kubrick lets himself have a laugh or two. If not a laugh, then at least a smile. Because despite 2001 being a literal travelogue of the future in the Sylvester section, Kubrick’s got no interest in exposition. Except when it develops Sylvester’s character and reveals the strangeness of future folk. But Kubrick is interested in doing the travelogue–so there are lots of things with instructions, lots of placards. Lingering shots, giving the viewer long enough to consider the possibilities. And the ten steps to the zero g toilet.

And through most of the second section, 2001 feels very epical. Sure, the first part of the movie was doing a serious ape-man prologue, but there’s rising action in the second part. There’s mystery. There’s Sylvester maybe forgetting about his daughter’s birthday. There are Russians. There’s bureaucracy. The Sylvester as bureaucrat scenes are so weird, in such a good way. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s script saves the best dialogue for the main action and for someone in particular, but the future decorum in the Sylvester section is peculiar, intriguing, and wonderful.

Shame it doesn’t turn out to be the main plot. When 2001 cuts from ape-men to space men, it does so with a lot of grace. When it cuts from space bureaucrats to space explorers, it’s done so with metal machine music.

Besides having a single setting–the Discovery spaceship–and a set cast (bland leading man types Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and then the red eyed computer, voiced by Douglas Rain), the third section also has an entirely different feel, visually and aurally. The tone of the music has changed. It’s still lush, but it’s not magnificent. Because space is empty in the third and fourth sections of the film. It’s empty, it’s quiet, and it’s lonely.

Kubrick and Clarke quickly establish the setting and characters, doing so as part of a lengthy summary montage. Kubrick’s expository interest is a little different now. The second section was the commercial for space travel, the third section is the lonely reality for Lockwood and Dullea. It’s also the section where Kubrick shows off the most with the interior special effects. There’s a lot of exterior stuff in the second part, but the third and fourth parts just have the one or two spacecraft. It’s otherwise empty space. So the future gawking is on the interiors, with all sorts of gravity-related design choices. And it’s all just functional. Dullea and Lockwood just getting through another day.

But, really, Kubrick is just setting up the computer to be a full character. That omnipresent red eye. Rain’s soothing, dulcet voice. Kubrick and Lovejoy cut Rain’s scenes–and Dullea and Lockwood’s interactions with him–deliberately, with a lot of time for deliberation, as Dullea and Lockwood (and the cast) wonder what Rain is really thinking. Except it’s just that voice and that red eye.

The fourth section has the same setting, same cast, no music, completely different editing pace. It’s got the action, it’s got the drama; it’s got the Frankenstein. And it’s also got completely different needs of the cast. Well, Dullea and Lockwood anyway. When things go wrong, Kubrick and Clarke don’t offer any expository outbursts. The quiet of the fourth section extends to the characters–they work intensely and silently.

The third and fourth parts have their own epical build too. Yes, the style changes after intermission, but not the narrative drive. Except it turns out Kubrick’s not really interested in that narrative drive. He’s had action in exterior prehistoric, exterior future, and interior future. For part five, most of it, the film is a point-of-view shot as the explorer encounters the unimaginable. Kubrick starts with special effects shots, then moves on to photographic process ones. For ten minutes, the film mesmerizes, free of time, free of plot. But with music again. Music comes back for part five.

Rain’s performance is a startling creation. Rain, Kubrick, Lovejoy, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, whoever came up with the red eye. It’s an achievement and probably the film’s finest. Maybe the finest. There are quite a few achievements happening in 2001; big ones, little ones. Technical ones (so many technical ones), narrative ones (many less of these, but significant ones). But Rain and the red eye, it’s where Kubrick excels. Kubrick shows off a lot in 2001, but never with HAL.

Dullea and Lockwood are good. Dullea’s a little better. Sylvester’s good. Lead ape-man Daniel Richter is good. Technically it’s fabulous. Lovejoy’s editing keeps getting better; the fifth section needs a lot of cutting and Lovejoy’s always got the right one. Unsworth’s photography is great. Production design is great. 2001 is a phenomenal film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story by Clarke; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Ray Lovejoy; production designers, Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, and Anthony Masters; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Keir Dullea (Dr. Dave Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Dr. Frank Poole), William Sylvester (Dr. Haywood R. Floyd), Daniel Richter (Moon-Watcher), Leonard Rossiter (Dr. Andrei Smyslov), Margaret Tyzack (Elena), Robert Beatty (Dr. Ralph Halvorsen), Sean Sullivan (Dr. Bill Michaels), and Douglas Rain (HAL 9000).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE OUTER SPACE ON FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Double Indemnity is mostly a character study. There’s the noir framing device–wounded insurance salesman Fred MacMurray stumbling into his office and recording his confession on a dictaphone. Turns out he met a woman and things didn’t work out.

MacMurray narrates the entire film. Occasionally the action returns to him sitting in the office, bleeding out. He’s always present. And he’s the only one always present. His confession is for Edward G. Robinson, who plays the insurance company claims manager and the closest thing MacMurray has to a friend. Both Robinson and MacMurray stay with it for the puzzles. Robinson in catching fraudulent claims, MacMurray in idling his time. He’s a character in stasis. Until he meets Barbara Stanwyck.

The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray has waves. Their demeanor develops in real time. With director Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s double entendre barbs tangoing and Doane Harrison getting just the right cut. And Miklós Rózsa’s ostentatious yet perfectly so score coming in. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray, especially the first couple, radiate.

But the film isn’t about Stanwyck’s fed-up wife and boyfriend MacMurray plotting to kill her husband (Tom Powers). For a while it seems like it might be–with MacMurray’s narration implying it too. But it’s not. Not the plotting, anyway. The plotting is all done offscreen while MacMurray’s dealing with work stuff. Powers is barely in the movie. Wilder’s ability to get good impressions from the supporting cast is outstanding; it’s also essential to Double Indemnity’s success. MacMurray’s narrating so he always gets the focus. Making sure the supporting cast is familiar when they have to return is big deal. Wilder (and Harrison) do some awesome character establishing in this film.

After the murder, there are complications. Sometimes there are resolutions, sometimes not. The connotations of each play out on MacMurray’s sometimes strained, sometimes ashen (presumably) face. Robinson and Stanwyck get the film’s flashier roles, but MacMurray’s the one who has to sell it. Not just in his performance but, for the film to work, in how his narration jibes with his own onscreen action.

And Double Indemnity does it. The filmmaking is impeccable.

The flashback takes place over a considerable amount of time–a few months–but the present action of the film is the hundred minutes of the runtime. MacMurray’s narration has an urgency to it. He skims the boring parts, or the parts it turns out he doesn’t want to examine, which is where the character study comes in. Both for Stanwyck, which is expected, and MacMurray, the film has some third act revelations. Double Indemnity being great, some of these revelations come out in scene so Stanwyck and MacMurray get to do their reactions. Others are in MacMurray’s narration. And those revelations are coming while the tension–both in the present and flashback–is getting more and more taut.

It’s awesome.

Double Indemnity is awesome.

Wilder has the three stars–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–and he’s always trying to figure out how to place them. The characters talk like they’re fencing–even when it’s pals MacMurray and Robinson. The physical movements are important. Especially when they’re moving during the talking heads. Robinson’s got this nervous energy as he works out schemes, making his behavior itself agitating to MacMurray.

Then there are are the silent facial expressions. They’re real important. Stanywck’s got one particularly great one. And Wilder makes them do some heavy character development lifting too. It’s great.

All three leads are great. Again, Stanwyck and–especially–Robinson get to be flashy. MacMurray has to keep it cool. Even so, Robinson’s probably the best. Then Stanwyck. The flashy is excellent flashy and the actors nail it.

Porter Hall’s got a fun scene, Richard Gaines has an awesome scene–most of the supporting cast just show up for a single scene. Established then out. Until they might need to come back, like Jean Heather as Stanwyck’s step-daughter. She shows up, implies one arc, comes back with something completely different. And far more important than originally implied.

Double Indemnity is a fast, busy film; Wilder and the crew–John F. Seitz’s photography, Harrison’s editing, the score, Edith Head’s costumes–make it graceful fast and busy. Like I said, it’s impeccable, masterful, awesome. Double Indemnity’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Miklós Rózsa; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), and Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.).


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Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

There are no clocks in Do the Right Thing. The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period; all the action is on one block, most of the characters live on the block. It’s a Saturday. Some people are working, some people aren’t. It’s a very hot day. And for the first ninety minutes of the film’s two hour runtime, writer-director-producer-actor Lee takes a relaxed approach to the pacing.

Lee’s protagonist isn’t exactly the main character; Thing has maybe four main plots running throughout the day, casually intersecting until everything crashes together. Lee’s part of most of them, but so’s Ossie Davis, so’s Giancarlo Esposito, so’s Bill Nunn. It’s about a lot of different people’s day. And Lee goes so deep with the backgrounds–narratively and filmically–it’s not always the top-billed who get the best scenes. Sure, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Ruby Dee all get excellent scenes and they’ve got bigger parts, but where Lee the filmmaker isn’t always in those scenes. Not for monologues for sure. Sam Jackson is the DJ and he gets some great scenes. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown change energy and tone with one cut to the next; the film already opens with Lee and Brown affecting the energy and tone.

The opening titles are over Rosie Perez dancing. She plays Lee’s girlfriend. They’ve got a kid. He’s not a great dad and he’s not a great boyfriend. But he loves her. They don’t live together.

Back to the opening titles. They’re over this red-colored monochrome Brooklyn street, empty besides Perez. Brown perfectly cuts on every movement as the shots cycle. Perez in different outfits, on different locations, with Ernest R. Dickerson changing up the lighting for most. More than the editing–or even pace, because Thing is never as relaxed as when Perez is dancing, not even in the quieter moments–more than either of those technical elements, Dickerson’s photography defines a lot of Thing. Especially during the first act when everything is getting set up. There’s a sharpness to Dickerson’s colors, but also enough warmth nothing ever clashes. And Frankie Faison’s third of a sidewalk raconteur trio is loudly dressed enough he definitely ought to clash. He’s in pastels in front of a red wall.

But Dickerson keeps it just warm enough. All those times where a clash should cause some kind of verisimilitude fissure–not because of the cast, but because of how Lee’s directing it–Dickerson’s photography keeps everything even. Or more inviting, actually. Faison doesn’t say much but he’s definitely the most amiable of the trio.

Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin make up the rest of the trio. Harris’s the most lovable, Benjamin’s unexpectedly the most dangerous. They sit and narrate the day, providing background through exposition. Lee’s script has so much going on at once, laying groundwork. One plot will discard an element, only for another to pick it up. Esposito is the energized pinball dinging between them.

Lee’s long setup, even after the first act establishing is done, is determining what exactly Esposito is dinging against. What are the bumpers he’s hitting. Only Espositio isn’t the main character either. He’s barely a supporting character. He’s kind of background, only he’s not, because the point of Thing is there is no background. Foreground and background intersect over and over–sometimes in great sequences, like Aiello friendliness to Joie Lee (Lee’s sister as his sister, which is a pragmatic goldmine). Lee and Turturro (as Aiello’s openly racist son–Aiello owns a pizza shop in a predominately Black neighborhood) don’t like Aiello’s attention to Joie Lee; Lee gets a lot of mileage out of it, both visually and in terms of narrative import.

There are times when Lee just lets a tangent go. It’s too hot to let things get drawn out. The end is different.

When the sun sets, Lee starts slowing things down. The last twenty minutes, minus the last two scenes, are in real-time. And Lee goes from a narrative distance of intense close-up to crane shot before things are over. He yanks the focus around, with Dickerson and Brown (and composer Bill Lee, accompanied by Branford Marsalis) making it all pretty, to keep the energy up but always different. He’s creating an entirely new narrative perspective, using materials he’s prepared in the previous ninety minutes.

Do the Right Thing goes from being great to being great in a totally different way; that second way is this careful rejection of melodrama, done at high speed. It’s awesome.

Great acting. Ossie Davis is the best. He’s got one of the fuller characters. Aiello’s real good, not flashy but real good. Turturro’s flashy and real good. Lee’s a fine protagonist. He’s generally reserved, which ends up helping to quickly introduce characters. In his scenes with Joie Lee and then Perez, he jumpstarts his character development. He’s more reactionary in his scenes with Aiello, Turturro, and Richard Edson (as Aiello’s nice younger son). Again, protagonist but not really main character.

In smaller parts, some fantastic acting. Dee, who starts a bigger character than she finishes, Harris, and Jackson, in particular. Joie Lee’s pretty good but never as good as when she’s bickering with her brother. Lee directs her a little different than everything else, almost like she’s in a featured cameo. The same goes, in very different ways, for Rosie Perez. She’s good too; it’s a good thing Perez is so naturally memorable–it’s the writing too but no one curses like she does–because she’s so set completely aside from everything else.

And, of course, a special mention of Christa Rivers. She’s in the background, she’s got no other film credits, but she’s tasked with holding a bunch of the film together just through reaction shots. She’s great.

Do the Right Thing is technically magnificent and beautifully acted. It’s also a stunning success for Lee. He goes after a lot with the film, does a lot with the film in terms of style and tone (and rapidly changing them), and it all hits.

Even with that studio-mandated insert shot of Lee at the end.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Bill Lee; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), John Turturro (Pino), Joie Lee (Jade), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Rosie Perez (Tina), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out), Richard Edson (Vito), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), and Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy).


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