Kubrick Fan? Check Out ‘Filmworker’

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Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali. Photo from dogwoof.com.

I’m a bit late to the party on this film, since it came out in October of 2017, but in case you’ve missed it too — if you love the work of Stanley Kubrick, and you haven’t watched Filmworker yet, you’ll want to.  It’s a riveting documentary about Leon Vitali, a British actor who gave up a thriving career on stage and screen in the mid-1970s to subsume himself in the work of Stanley Kubrick, becoming the director’s apprentice, right-hand man, and, at times, whipping boy.

Vitali was still at drama school when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and declared it the best movie he’d ever seen. He was likewise impressed with A Clockwork Orange, and he decided he wanted to work for Kubrick. Vitali’s agent arranged an audition for Barry Lyndon, and the actor scored a role as Lord Bullingdon. His time working with Kubrick on that film (Vitali stayed on after shooting was finished to watch how the editing was done) sparked a desire to work with the celebrated director behind the scenes. Kubrick recommended the young actor get some more experience, which Vitali did by helping out in the editing room of a Swedish movie called Terror of Frankenstein (in which he also starred as Victor Frankenstein). Then Vitali contacted Kubrick, who sent him Stephen King’s novel The Shining and asked him what he thought. Vitali told the director he thought it would make a great movie, and the rest is history — albeit a history of which moviegoers were largely unaware until this film was released, and a history that sheds new light on Kubrick’s status as a loner genius.

Vitali took on a wide range of duties for the director, including traveling to the U.S. and auditioning roughly 4,000 children to play Danny in The Shining. He also helped cast R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and he served as on-set acting coach for both those actors. To hear Vitali tell it, his duties over the years were endless; he helped Kubrick on set, but he also took copious notes for the director, handled correspondence and phone calls, arranged logistics — and often took the brunt of Kubrick’s mercurial temper.

Vitali worked for the famously meticulous Kubrick 14 or so hours a day, seven days a week, yet still somehow had time for a marriage and three children. His kids, now grown, recall their father as a loving but mostly absent presence who was constantly working. One failing of the documentary is that it barely skims Vitali’s personal life; his ex-wife is never mentioned, let alone interviewed, and the toll his devotion to Kubrick took on his relationships and his health is noted only briefly.

(I should mention that I greatly admire Kubrick’s work, but not without some reservations; he was incredibly talented, but he falls short — or maybe wasn’t interested — in realistic depictions of female characters. He sometimes softened the harsher details of his source material, making despicable figures such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange more palatable. He also seems to have been a bit of a perv, always finding a way to include at least one scene of a scantily-clad or nude woman in most of his films. That said, I think The Shining is the quintessential horror film, and it’s one of my top five favorite movies.)

Since Kubrick’s death in 1999, Vitali has dedicated himself to securing Kubrick’s legacy, overseeing the restoration of most of the director’s films with the same perfectionist attention to detail that was Kubrick’s hallmark. Watching Vitali’s complete sacrifice of his own ambitions in the service of Kubrick’s creative vision, you’re struck by all the Leons — in varying degrees of self-sacrifice — who make the grand artistic statements of others possible.

What Leon did was a selfless act, a kind of crucifixion of himself.

— Matthew Modine, Filmworker

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Forget What You’ve Heard About ‘Vice’

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Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, left, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. 

I had heard that the Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale, Vice, was disappointing, so I was going to skip it. I’m very glad I didn’t — it’s a wild, crazy, funny ride through the life of one of the most influential politicians of recent times.

Christian Bale’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. He is completely transformed into Cheney, doing the dramatic weight change that Bale has carried off for other films. But he also nails Cheney’s weird head tilt and habit of speaking out of one side of his mouth. Amy Adams is terrific as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell is great as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell really deserves his own movie as George W. Bush.

If viewers were expecting a stately, by-the-numbers biopic, that would explain their disappointment. This is no Lincoln. Vice is a freewheeling romp that veers from scenes of Cheney’s misspent youth to glimpses of White House intrigue, punctuated by narration from a character (Jesse Plemons) whose connection to Cheney is only revealed near the end of the movie. One highlight is a sequence in which Dick and Lynne, tucked cozily in bed, plot their machinations in faux-Shakespearean iambic pentameter. A dollop of Macbeth, anyone?

In a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine, director Adam McKay says, “We’re discovering new styles and forms, because this era we’re in demands it. The world has gotten so cartoonishly exaggerated and over the top. Why be subtle anymore?” Why indeed, and Vice is by turns hilarious and frightening, but never subtle. If you want to know about the differences between the film’s Cheney and the real Cheney, The New Yorker has a good article by Nicholas Lemann. And if your political views align with the conservatism of the Reagan/Bush era, then you’re probably better off passing on this film.

I’m having a heart attack, you idiot.

— Dick Cheney, Vice

And Now, a Short Rant About ‘House of Cards’

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Robin Wright as Claire Hale Underwood. 

(ALERT: Spoilers ahead for the final episode of Season 6 of House of Cards.)

I just finished watching the series finale of House of Cards last night. Others have written entertaining and insightful pieces about the disappointment this show eventually became (check out this article in The Atlantic), so I’ll just add my two cents: what a waste! This show began as a fascinating, if implausible, look at power-hungry types in Washington, D.C., boasting interesting dialogue, compelling performances, and really marvelous music that ranged from unobtrusively tone-setting to operatic to deeply disturbing. The show grew more unbelievable and much less fun to watch as it went on, but I had to see how the story ended.

The entire final season seemed rushed, with plot points glossed over and new characters introduced and then barely mentioned. Although Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was dead, his memory dominated the action. Unfortunately, his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), was the new protagonist in name only, stepping into Frank’s shoes as a ruthless, amoral (and suddenly pregnant) manipulator. But there are so many unanswered questions! Including: why does Claire want so badly to be president? Is it just to wield power? She seems to have no pet issues or projects. How did a fifty-something woman get pregnant? She’s got to be pretty much menopausal at this point. Who is really the father of this hard-to-believe baby? It can’t be Frank — there’s honestly no evidence of him ever sleeping with Claire throughout the storyline, let alone near the end of Season 5. So the father is probably Tom the Novelist. Why on earth is Doug Stamper so loyal to Frank? OK, evidently Frank helped Doug get sober, but still.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Kevin Spacey’s departure from the series at the end of Season 5 is that, as we watched his nefarious dealings throughout the series, we assumed we would get to enjoy seeing his eventual comeuppance. Instead, Frank’s death — like Claire’s final triumph over Doug in the show’s final minutes — is sadly anticlimactic. And in the end, my biggest question is: what is the point of all this? All the enormous amounts of money, time, and talent spent creating this show — when it’s not even entertaining anymore, then what was it all for?

Democracy is so overrated.

— Frank Underwood, House of Cards

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Mary Donahue strides across the prairie. Photo credit: Dana Williams

I had the wonderful good fortune to spend the past weekend in Denver, gathering with my friends to see the latest Coen brothers’ film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, at a cinema there. We were eager to watch it together on a big screen because our dear friend Mary Donahue, an art professor at a college in Nebraska, was an extra for some weeks of the movie’s filming in Nebraska last year, playing a pioneer woman in a wagon train. We watched the movie at the cinema, then went back to our Airbnb to watch Mary’s episode again on Netflix. (That’s Mary in the screen capture above. She absolutely looked the part, even though we never see her up close.)

Buster Scruggs was originally going to be a series on Netflix, but at some point the decision was made to trim each episode down and string the vignettes together into a feature film. It’s an interesting film, composed of compelling stories, but it’s far from being my favorite Coen brothers’ movie. The trailers emphasize the movie’s humorous bits, but don’t be misled: the entire enterprise’s comedy is pitch-black, and the Coen brothers’ penchant for jokey nihilism is strong throughout.

The vignettes tell the stories of a singing cowboy, an unlucky bank robber, two itinerant entertainers, a gold prospector, a young woman heading west, and four travelers on a mysterious stagecoach. The wagon train episode, called “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is the longest and most satisfying episode, featuring gorgeous vistas of the Nebraska plains and a poignant story about the human need for connection.

The other vignettes fail to satisfy completely, although some come close. The story of the traveling entertainers, called “Meal Ticket,” is beautifully filmed and acted (by Liam Neeson and Harry Melling), but the tale seems needlessly heartbreaking. Tom Waits is wonderfully crusty as the prospector in “All Gold Canyon,” the only segment that could be said to have a positive outcome for our hero. Tim Blake Nelson is delightful as the crooning and lethal gunslinger in the opening story, but that tale is slight, bordering on silly. Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, and Grainger Hines are all excellent in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” especially Heck, who subtly conveys a wagon train boss’s low-key yearning to settle down into a life of contented domesticity.

The final vignette, “The Mortal Remains,” ties up the film’s existential themes of mortality with a dash of wicked comedy, and it features splendid performances by Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill as bounty hunters who thoroughly unsettle their fellow stagecoach passengers. It boasts a haunting version of the Irish folk song “The Unfortunate Rake” (also the source of the cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo”) and provides the film with a fittingly melancholy coda.

The film is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a Coen brothers fan, but for me, it won’t displace such movies as “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” and their version of “True Grit.”

We all love hearing stories about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us…but not us.

— Thigpen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

You Again?

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A couple of nights ago, my husband and I watched the 2013 film Enemy on Netflix, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I was curious because Gyllenhaal is always interesting to watch, and because Villeneuve has, of course, gone on to direct Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, both of which I liked. While Enemy is compelling and artfully made, I can only recommend it if you like creepy, dread-filled head-scratchers, and if you do not have a fear of spiders.

Gyllenhaal plays a morose college professor who discovers a bit-part actor who is his doppelganger, and he begins to pry into the other man’s life. Mayhem, and some other bewildering things, ensue, including a few scenes where tarantulas play a key role. The film is effectively unsettling, shot in a sepia tone that gives Toronto (where it was shot) a sickly yellow cast, and with an unnerving score that creates a strong sense of foreboding.  The final scene is utterly baffling.

Are the professor and the actor brothers? The same man? Who knows. If you watch Enemy and want some answers — and I can’t imagine you wouldn’t want some answers! — here’s an interesting theory from Slate, and here’s one from Vulture

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A film with a similar theme, which I enjoyed more, is The Double, also released in 2013 (hmm, what was it about doppelgangers in 2013?) and based on a story by Dostoevsky, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Wallace Shawn. There is some comedy, albeit dark comedy, in this story of a meek government clerk whose drab life becomes a nightmare with the arrival of a confident, charismatic new co-worker who is his exact physical double. This isn’t on Netflix anymore, but it’s available a bunch of other places. If you like absurdist black comedy and Jesse Eisenberg, it could be just your thing.

The Colonel: There aren’t too many like you. Are there, Simon?

Simon: I’d like to think I’m pretty unique.

— The Double

The Tunnel

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Last night I finished watching the final season of a British/French crime thriller called The TunnelI recommend it, but with some reservations.

There are three seasons of The Tunnel, all of which aired on PBS and are available on the PBS streaming app (possibly only if you are a member of your local PBS station and have their Passport feature), as well as other streaming vendors. The first season was a remake of a 2011 Danish-Swedish crime series called The Bridge. The second season, The Tunnel: Sabotage, and the third, The Tunnel: Vengeance, are original stories.

The primary reason to watch the series is for some superior acting from the two leads: English actor Stephen Dillane as Detective Chief Inspector Karl Roebuck, based in Folkestone, and Clémence Poésy as Captain (later Commander) Elise Wassermann, based in Calais. Dillane is the relaxed, wisecracking, seasoned detective to Poésy’s serious, single-minded, less-experienced crime fighter. Elise also exhibits traits that indicate she might have Asperger’s syndrome — she’s highly intelligent with a great eye for detail, but she’s hopeless at interpreting social cues and dealing with other people’s emotions.

The two are thrown together in the first season when someone places the upper half of a French politician and the lower half of a British prostitute in the Channel Tunnel at the halfway point between the UK and France. The tale is off and running from there, with our two protagonists and their teams collaborating willingly at times and clashing at others. The show is bilingual, which gives me a chance to try and use my high-school and college French, and I love seeing a glimpse of how people in those areas of England and France live. The British and the French detectives needle each other, each taking turns getting in their digs at the other country’s culture, and the third season, filmed after the Brexit vote, works in some gibes from both sides about the UK leaving the EU.

International issues and politics permeate the storylines, which involve elaborate, even baroque crimes devised by villains who have plenty of time and resources on their hands. The series is quite gritty, and there are downright heartbreaking events that occur in each season — that’s my reservation about recommending it. But if you enjoy seeing two well-matched actors play characters whose sparring relationship grows into a deep friendship, look no further. I was especially taken with Dillane, who was a new face to me, even though he has a long history on British stage and screen (and evidently plays a role on Game of Thrones, which I’ve never seen). He’s been called an “actor’s actor,” and that’s exactly right — he’s completely comfortable in his own skin, and reveals Karl’s inner workings with the subtlest expressions.

If you watch it, come back and let me know what you thought!

Elise Wassermann: I can’t eat anything sweet until I get my tooth fixed.

Karl Roebuck: What’s wrong with your tooth? Did you bite somebody?

— The Tunnel: Vengeance

Three Identical Strangers

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Photo courtesy of Neon

Dash out and see the fascinating and moving Three Identical Strangers as soon as you can, before you’ve heard a lot about it. It would be criminal to reveal too much, but suffice to say it’s a documentary about Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Bobby Shafran, identical triplets who were separated at birth and adopted by different families. They discovered each other in 1980, when Eddy and Bobby went to the same college in upstate New York. Eddy went one year, and the next year, when Bobby arrived as a freshman, he was startled to be greeted by complete strangers as an old friend. The two boys met, and the media picked up on the incredible feel-good story. Soon the third triplet, David, saw his own face on two strangers grinning at him from a newspaper, and he got in touch. As one of the adoptive mothers said, “They’re coming out of the woodwork!” The three boys became instant and inseparable soulmates.

All the above happens in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, with the help of some re-enactments (I’m not usually a fan of re-enactments in a documentary, but these are minimal and unobtrusive). After that, as one family friend says, things “kinda got funky.” The rest of the narrative is told through interviews with the brothers, their loved ones, and other key players, supplemented with terrific archival photos and video footage. The plot thickens, twists, and twists a few more times, right up to the end, so strap on your seat belt, and maybe bring a hankie.

Bobby Shafran: This is like Nazi sh**.

—  Three Identical Strangers