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

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

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

Why I Think You Should Watch the Original ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

It’s been a few months since Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express (based on the novel by Agatha Christie) was released, but I hadn’t started this blog yet, so I wasn’t able to fulminate in written form about the many things that film got wrong, and advocate for seeing the original instead, except to a few lucky friends and colleagues. So now’s my chance! Grab a cup of tea and settle in.

My mother and sisters took me to see the original Murder on the Orient Express (1974) at the venerable Century Theatres in South Salt Lake — not the new cinema, but the old ones, the goofy space-age-inspired dome theaters. (I love that the photo below has It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the marquee. I remember being taken to see that wacky little gem as a kid as well, although since it came out in 1963 — before I was born — it must have been in re-release.)

Century Theatres dome

The original Murder was directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, and it featured what the DVD case’s tagline accurately calls “the Who’s Who in the Whodunnit”: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and more. In the role of Hercule Poirot is the surprising choice of Albert Finney: surprising because he was a slim chap in his 30s and had to be padded and made up to look like the older, more rotund Poirot. It’s an amazing transformation, and a mesmerizing performance. He is still the definitive Poirot in my book (closely followed by the excellent David Suchet on PBS).

Which brings us to Kenneth Branagh. I often like his work, both as an actor and a director, and he wears both hats for his 2017 version of Murder. I’m still not sure what he was thinking with this portrayal of Christie’s famous Belgian detective. He looks nothing like Poirot: he is slim where he should be portly, silver-haired where he should be dark, and sports a gigantic mustache that seems to be unprecedented in the annals of male grooming. He does nail the accent, of course, as any actor trained in the rigorous English tradition would. But he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Finney. Finney’s Poirot is self-confident without being a show-off, fastidious without being effete. Branagh’s Poirot is smart, but also pretentious, sentimental, and much too athletic. (Poirot in a foot chase with a suspect? Seriously?)

The tone of Branagh’s film is needlessly dark and self-important. The original film is delightfully light and even funny, with the exception of the opening sequence, an eerie montage laying out the kidnapping case that forms the crux of the story. I found the sequence frightening as a child, and I realized later that was in large part because of the effectively chilling music. The score for the entire film is wonderful, and the composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. (The movie was nominated for six Oscars; one was won, by Ingrid Bergman for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I feel it would have won more if it hadn’t been up against things like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown.)

A digression: here’s one of my favorite examples of how fundamental music and editing are to filmmaking. It’s a happy version of the trailer for The Shining.

Anyway, there you have it. I admit to having a sentimental attachment to this version of Murder on the Orient Express; it was a favorite of my parents, and I have fond memories of watching it with them on our huge, clunky Betamax video machine (my dad was always an early adopter when it came to technology). Please seek it out and watch it if you like mysteries.

Foscarelli: Hey, what are you reading, Mister Beddoes?

Beddoes: I am reading “Love’s Captive,” by Mrs. Arabella Richardson.

Foscarelli: Is it about sex?

Beddoes: No, it’s about 10:30, Mister Foscarelli.

— Murder on the Orient Express

Film Fan

The first movie I remember really loving was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which I must have been taken to when I was quite young, followed closely by What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (Paul Newman and Katharine Ross riding a bike around a farm to the strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” seemed to my four- or five-year-old self the perfect way to conduct a courtship.) A lifelong fascination with films (and, more recently, television, as the quality has improved dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years) ensued. For some reason, I was rarely drawn to movies aimed at children (although I do remember loving Escape to Witch Mountain) and never became a Disneyphile. Go figure.

In the course of getting my theatre degree, I took several film courses, and I’ve seen countless movies over the years; both of these things have equipped me to become a fairly opinionated — and definitely self-appointed — film and TV critic. Some of you reading this have expressed fondness for the movie and TV recommendations I’ve included in our family holiday letter each year, so you have only yourselves to blame for the existence of this blog — that’s what you get for encouraging me.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy.

See you at the movies,

Alyssa

P.S. Yes, that is me in the header photo, hiding behind a pillow as I watch a good and scary ghost story on PBS called Remember Me, starring Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. He is very good in it.

“Let’s you and me jump in that river.” — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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